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9 legendary French athletes to remember as 2018 Ryder Cup arrives in Paris

GUYANCOURT, France — So here we are in France, where the 2018 Ryder Cup is expected to have a little bit of everything, except . . . any players from France.

They’re here for Team Europe from Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Italy, England, and Northern Ireland. But not France. Not so much as a vice captain. But since Le Golf National is 18 miles from the Eiffel Tower and just down the road from the Palace of Versailles, best not to forget who’s throwing this little party. You can certainly tell by the three giant tees — red, white and blue of the French flag — near the west gate.

France is a land of grand history, and that includes sports. So before the Ryder Cup teams head out for their first practice session Tuesday at Le Golf National — where trees are sparse but water comes into play on nine holes — here are nine French sportsmen who are pretty hard to forget.

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Baron Pierre de Coubertin . . .

The Olympic Games had not been held in 1,500 years, until this French aristocrat from Paris organized a group to revive the idea in the 1890s. The Games were reborn in Athens in 1896. That got him remembered as the Father of the Modern Olympics.

It’s also why the French language is still part of every Olympic ceremony.

His life as a real father was far more tragic. According to various biographies, his son never fully mentally recovered from severe sunstroke after being left in the sun too long as a baby, and his daughter had deep lifelong emotional issues. He and his wife turned to helping raise two nephews for solace. Both young men were killed at the front in World War I. Coubertin died something of a broken man in Geneva in 1937, and his gravesite is Lausanne, Switzerland, not far from the current headquarters of the International Olympic Committee he helped found. Except for his heart, which by request in his last will, was buried near the ruins of ancient Olympia in Greece. No Coubertin, maybe no faster, higher, stronger.

Maurice-Francois Garin . . .

Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault would become national legends by winning the Tour de France five times, but it was The Little Chimney Sweep — he was only 5-4 and cleaned chimneys — who took the first one in 1903. He repeated in 1904, even as villagers partial for one of his rivals beat him as he rode through. “I’ll win the Tour de France,” he was quoted as saying, “provided I’m not murdered before we get to Paris.”

He made it, but was later stripped of the victory for cheating. The Tour de France is still the gold standard for cycling, but no French man has won it in 33 years.

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Yannick Noah . . .

It was American star Arthur Ashe who noticed a French-born 11-year-old at a tennis clinic in Cameroon, showing considerable promise, even as the kid played with a board instead of a racquet. Ashe referred Noah to the French Tennis Federation for development. Twelve years later, Noah became the first Frenchman to win the French Open — one of tennis’ grand slam events, and the biggest prize on clay — in 37 years. He remains the last to do it.

Since then, he has become a successful pop singer, but his son might be more familiar to American fans of another, larger round ball. Joakim Noah of the NBA.

Jean Claude Killy . . .

Raised in the Alps, Killy carried the fervent hopes of a nation in 1968 when France hosted the Winter Olympics in Grenoble. The public demanded home-slope gold, and he provided it, winning alpine skiing’s triple crown – the downhill, slalom and giant slalom. He was the toast of France. But 50 years later, there are still Austrians who believe it was done dirty.

In the slalom race — held in wintry, foggy conditions — Austria’s Karl Schranz claimed he was impeded on the course by a mysterious man dressed in black who ran in front of him. He led three witnesses to the judges, who granted Schranz another try. He beat Killy’s time and was unofficially declared the winner, but upon further review, the judges disqualified Schranz, claiming he missed gates on his first run. That’s when the snow really hit the fan.

More than one Austrian suggested the man in black was a French policeman or course official, and it was all a conspiracy to ensure Killy his triple victory. The French countered that the story was all made up. The mystery has never been really settled to this day — the Olympics answer to the Loch Ness monster.

Zinedine Zidane . . .

How to become un heros national: Score two goals in the final to carry your country’s team to a World Cup championship, on home turf no less. So it happened in 1998, when France shocked Brazil 3-0, and more than a million people stormed the Champs-Elysees to celebrate.

His World Cup P.S. was not so pleasant. Eight years later, France was back in the final, against Italy in Berlin, and Zidane scored again. He had already been proclaimed the player of the tournament. But during extra time of the all-square championship match — enraged, he later claimed, by some personal trash talking from Italy’s Marco Materazzi — he dropped his tormenter with a head to the chest.  It was the Headbutt Heard ‘Round the World.  Zidane was red-carded to the sideline, and France lost in a penalty shootout. Back home, his fans rallied around their star, but one French newspaper pointedly asked in print, “What should we tell our children, for whom you have become an example forever?” It was his last match before retirement. What a way to go.

Tony Parker . . .

His father was an American basketball player, his mother a Dutch model, and he was born in Belgium. But Parker was raised in France, and carried those colors when he was Tim Duncan’s sidekick in San Antonio through four NBA championships.

The thing is, it almost never happened. Sapped by a long flight from France to the U.S., Parker did not impress Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in his first pre-draft workout. Popovich’s first instinct was to scratch Parker off his draft list, and how different might NBA Finals history have been in San Antonio had he stayed with that thought? But he was convinced to give Parker another look, and they eventually made a lot of headlines together. Parker made other headlines when he married TV star Eva Longoria. Did you see their pictures from the Emmys? The marriage didn’t last, but Parker’s basketball legacy will.

Andre the Giant . . .

Everything Andre Roussimoff did seemed larger than life, whether it was being able to put down 100 cans of beer in one night without breaking a sweat, or the size attributed to him: 7-4, 520 pounds.

Millions followed his WestleMania rivalry with Hulk Hogan, and millions more watched him in the movies, since casting directors knew just who to call when they needed a human mountain in the script. The son of French immigrants was born near Grenoble, and died of congestive heart failure in a Paris hotel room at the age 46. He had come to town for his father’s funeral.

Arnaud Massy . . .

 The son of a sheep farmer worked on a sardine boat as a teenager, and supplemented his income as a caddie. Bitten by the golf bug, he developed into a top player and won the 1907 British Open. Massy was the first French major champion.

And 111 years later, still the only one.  His career was interrupted by World War I and he was wounded at Verdun, but he returned to his profession afterward, won more tournaments, and reportedly even beat Bobby Jones in a foursomes match in Florida. By 1940, he was living under German occupation in Normandy, subsisting on mostly cabbage and black bread. France’s only major golf champion died in 1950, in poverty.

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Jean Van de Velde . . .

 His 72nd hole calamity in the 1999 British Open provided 20 of the most painful minutes in majors history. He needed only a double bogey on the par-4 to clinch a life-changing victory. But by the time he drove into the wrong fairway, then hit off a grandstand into deep rough, then into water, then into a bunker, he had a triple bogey 7. That meant a playoff. He lost to Paul Lawrie, who had started the day 10 shots behind.

Not much doubt what goes in the first paragraph of Van de Velde’s obituary.

“There are worse things in life,” Van de Velde said that day.

In 2016, when he was at Carnoustie to play in the Senior Open, and asked how it had gone for him on No. 18. “My usual. I missed a fairway left. Missed a fairway again left. Hit it on the green and lipped out for four, but I had five.”

The bogey was 17 years too late.

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Now the Ryder Cup has come to Jean Van de Velde’s land for the first time. Captains Jim Furyk and Thomas Bjorn had their initial on-site press conference Monday, and Ryder Cup warrior Ian Poulter was already on the practice range. “I think he wanted to go mid-week last week if he could,” Bjorn said. “We all know Ian’s history and feelings about the Ryder Cup.”

Meanwhile, the buzz was still fresh from Tiger Woods’ Sunday victory, and clearly the premises has already gotten a jolt of intrigue about what damage a rejuvenated Woods might do. “Not that this event needs much more energy,” Furyk said, “but it will add that much more excitement.”

It should be a great week for France. Even without any French.