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Flag and burgee of FFSA - Image by Ivan Sache, 29 December 2005
The French national rowing federation is called Fédération Française des Sociétés d'Aviron (FFSA - French Federation of Rowing Societies); it was founded in 1890 and has today 384 affiliated clubs and 65,000 members.
Rowing as a sport appeared in France on the river Seine around 1823. The first boats were built by shipwrights from Rouen and Le Havre. Rowing was then practiced by a few eccentrics but became quickly one of the first mass sports, attracting all social classes. The first races with rowing boats were organized in Paris in 1834. At that time, several artists enjoyed rowing and contributed to its fame, such as the writers Alphonse Karr and Théophile Gautier. Within a few decades, there were 30 shipyards, 2,000 rowing boats and 10,000 smaller boats (baladeurs) in the region of Paris. Rowing spread to other French big towns such as Lyon, Reims and Bordeaux. Rowing became a social activity, very often portrayed by the Impressionist painters, for instance Sisley, Monet, Renoir and Caillebotte.
There were different kinds of rowing: the riders' rowing, practiced by the romantics and nature lovers; the gamblers' rowing, practiced by those wanting to be seen and to have fun; and the serious rowing, practiced as a sport by the aristocracy and the liberal classes. The serious rowers were upset by the behaviour of the less respectable rowers, who gave a bad image of their sport and prevented them to raise funds for their expensive boats. Those serious rowers were the founders of the modern rowing sport.
In 1838, the oldest watersport society in France was created in Le Havre (Société des Régates du Havre). Similar regatta societies were founded in Rouen (1847), Lyon (1855), Bergerac (1860) and Boulogne-sur-Mer (1861). These societies organized regattas and nautical festivals and set up the first competition rules; they did not have club houses as they have today. Rowing races on river and at sea became very popular and professional teams were set up.
Société des Régates Parisiennes (SRP) was founded in 1853 and attempted to federate and regulate boat races in France; in 1869, it had 30 affiliated societies all over France. As of 1856, only two categories of boats were allowed in races, the outriggers (avirons) and the free skiffs (yoles franches). Boats had one, two, four, six or eight rowers. The first French Championship in single sculls was organized by Rowing Club (RC) in 1853. Paris became the French capital of rowing in 1867, when the SRP and the RC jointly organized the regattas for the Universal Exposition. During the Second Empire, boat races were as popular as horse races. In the 1860s, rowing transformed to an amateur sport.
The preparation of the revenge after the defeat against Prussia in 1870 boosted sport in France. Some 50 societies were founded from 1872 to 1882: they were either omnisport societies (sport clubs) or watersport societies, but all of them included a rowing section. The rowing clubs outside Paris challenged the monopole of the big clubs from Paris and created their own federations and rules, which made the national unification of rowing impossible.
However, following the example of other sports already organized in a national federation, the three most important rowing federations (Union des Sociétés Nautiques du Sud-Ouest, 1879; Union des Sociétés d'Aviron de France, 1882; and Fédération des Sociétés Nautiques du Nord de la France) founded in 1890 Fédération Française des Sociétés d'Aviron (FFSA). Two years later (25 June 1892), Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and France founded Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d'Aviron (FISA) in Turin. Britain did not join the FISA because the workers were considered as professionals and therefore not allowed to run in the famous Henley Royal Regatta, founded in 1839: most rowers from continental Europe could not compete in Henley and FISA organized European Championships opened to everyboby.
Rowing was highly estimated by Baron Pierre de Coubertin and was among the sports included in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens (1896). However, the regattas were cancelled because of a storm that broke out in the bay of Piraeus.
In France, the definitive statutes of FFSA were adopted in the 1920s. In 1922, FFSA grouped 116 rowing clubs and was reconnue d'utiluté publique (state approved). In that period, most French champions trained alone and national crews made of rowers from different clubs did not exist. The athlets had no vacation during which they could train together.
Competition sport was reorganized in France after the failure in the Olympic Games in Rome (1960). A long term sport policy was developed with structuration and massive funding of the federations, appointment of coaches etc. In 1960, the new coaches of the French rowing team decided to organize training camps for the best rowers from all clubs and to constitute national crews. On 1973, FFSA had 173 clubs and more than 10,000 members. In 1989, there were 33,000 members representing 275 clubs. After irregular results, FFSA and the national team of rowing were successfully reorganized in 1992.
In Olympic rowing 14 different boat classes are raced, eight sculling events in which two oars are used, one in each hand and six sweep-oared events in which the rower uses one oar with both hands. The sculling boat classes are the single, the double and the quadruple sculls with crews of one, two or four athletes respectively, as well as the lightweight double. The sweep row categories include the pair, the four, the lightweight four (for men only) and the eight with coxswain, which is perhaps the most spectacular rowing event of all.
For the lightweight events (the lightweight women's double and the lightweight men's double and four) the average weight of a men's crew must not exceed 70 kg for women, the average weight of a crew must not exceed 57 kg. All races cover a distance of 2,000 metres.
The five Olympic titles won by French rowers are the following:
- 1900 (Paris) Single sculls; Four with coxswain
- 1952 (Helsinki) Pair with coxswain
- 2000 (Sydney) Pair; Lightweight four
- 2004 (Athens) Double sculls
The World Champion titles won by French rowers are the following:
- 1962 (Lucerne) Double sculls
- 1975 (Nottingham) Lightweight four
- 1976 (Villach) Lightweight four
- 1977 (Amsterdam) Lightweight four
- 1985 (Hazewinkel) Lightweight double sculls
- 1993 (Roudnice) Women's pair; double sculls; coxless four
- 1994 (Indianapolis) Women's pair
- 1997 (Aiguebelette) Pair; Four
- 1998 (Cologne) Pair
- 2001 (Lucerne) Four; Lightweight eight with coxswain
- 2003 (Milan) Double sculls
- 2004 (Bagnoles) Women's four; Lightweight eight with coxswain
- 2005 (Gifu) Lightweight coxless four; four
Sea rowing was nearly extincted in France when Gérard d'Aboville crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1980 (from Brest to Cape Cod, in 72 days). Since then, sea rowing resurfaced, mostly in Brittany. In 1992, d'Aboville crossed the Pacific Ocean in 134 days. In 1997, FFSA organized the first French Championship of sea rowing whereas the sea rower Chay Blyth organized the first transatlantic races between the Canary Islands and Barbados. In 2003, Maud Fontenoy was the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean, from St. Pierre-et-Miquelon to La Coruña.The flag and burgee of FFSA can be seen on the poster of the 1924 French Championship organized in Arcachon. The flag is the French national flag with three stars added: a white star in the blue stripe, a red star in the white stripe and a blue star in the red stripe. The flag of FFSA is very similar to the flag of Yacht-Club de France, which differs only by a blue star in the white stripe and no star at all in the red stripe.
Source: FFSA website
Rowing French champion's pennant (golden fringe not shown) - Image by Ivan Sache, 29 December 2005
All winners in the French Championship are awarded a pennant (in French, fanion) made on the model of the flag of FFSA. The yellow letters FFSA are added above the white star in the blue stripe, whereas the year of the competition is added in yellow above the blue star in the red stripe.
Images of the winner's pennants can be seen on several websites of rowing clubs that show pictures of their champions. The attached image was made after the picture of Marion Dejean, national champion in junior category in 2005, from the club of La Grande-Motte.
Ivan Sache, 29 December 2005