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Friday 12 October 2018

Paris to Belfort - 1892

As was the case with cycling, athletics, and particularly running, emerged as a sport in the last decade of the nineteenth century. In 1889, the first national organisation was formed, grouping together French athletics associations. Athletics were promoted by the first periodical devoted exclusively to the sport – La Revue Athletique. This was a monthly publication started in 1890 by Pierre de Coubertin, who would later found the modern Olympic movement. Coubertin was an important proponent of amateurism in sport. He emphasised the virtue of participation in sport for its own sake, downplaying the competitve aspect and the emphasis on winning inherent in sporting activities. These ideals found their way into the organisation of sports activities other than running.
Runners remember Giffard as the organiser of Paris-Belfort, a foot race over a course of some 380 kilometers in early June 1892, and the first large scale long distance foot race on record. Over 1100 registered for the event of which over 800 showed up for the start on June 5th, at the offices of le Petit Journal, close to the Paris Opera. This had also been the start point for the inaugural Paris-Brest-Paris the previous year. Again, circulation of the newspaper showed a dramatic increase as the French public followed the progress of race participants, 380 of whom completed the course in under 10 days. Giffard waxed eloquent in a summation of the event in the pages of le Petit Journal on June 18th, 1892, praising the event as a model for the physical training of a nation faced by hostile neighbours.
Giffard returned memorably to the field of athletics in 1896 with the inaugural Paris marathon on July 18, 1896. Although by now editor of his own daily newspaper, Le Velo, he organised the event on behalf of le Petit Journal, an arrangement that suggests a continuing relationship between the two publications. The marathon was held in emulation of the inclusion, at the insistence of the Greeks, of the event in the inaugural Olympics held in Athens earlier that year. It was Giffard who started the race before a large crowd assembled at the Port Maillot. The race was won by an Englishman, Len Hurst, who collected the 200 franc prize money put up by Le Petit Journal. This was to be the last marathon held in Paris until the mid-1980′s.

As a final hurrah, Giffard organised a footrace on the Bordeaux – Paris race route in 1903. This race was won in the time of 114 hours, 22 minutes and 20 seconds. But, by this time, his rivals had undermined his competitve position. Le Velo was within months of collapse.

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