French Basketball in China & Phantom Documents

I recently wrote a paper for the #GoldenGamesNUS sports diplomacy conference on the three times the French men’s basketball team played in China (1966, 1980, and 2006). The subject may seem odd to the casual eye, but these countries boast the oldest hoops traditions outside of North America, dating to 1893 (France) and 1895 (China). As it turned out, “La France en Chine: The Power of Basketball Diplomacy” is one of the more fun, quirky papers I’ve written and the challenges involved in stitching it together are instructive on many levels.

The piece is heavily informed by cross-generational player testimony. I first learned about the 1966 trip during a lunchtime conversation at INSEP with Michel Rat and Jean-Marie Jouaret, two players who made that pioneering voyage. Their recollection of what it was like to be young Westerners in China at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution was fascinating. Additional details provided by Christian Baltzer further tweaked my curiosity and provided new layers of complexity to this interlude. Continuing the plot was the testimony of Bill Cain, Les Bleus’ New York-born ‘shot king’ who provided keen insight as to the cultural interactions and identity issues involved between the French and Chinese in 1980. I also spoke with Mike Gélabale and Boris Diaw about their time with the Équipe de France in China in 2006 en route to the FIBA World Championship. It’s striking that playing hoops in China didn’t carry the same exotic or mysterious caché as it did in 1966 or 1980, though I have several ideas about this change. 

One of the main reasons why this paper relies so heavily on oral history is that there are few archival documents on the 1966 or 1980 trip. Certainly, there are press accounts in the major dailies such as Le Monde and Le Figaro, while sports daily L’Équipe and the French Basketball Federation’s (FFBB) Basket-Ball both provide rich, in-depth color detail and quotes. But that’s where the official paper trail stops. According to the FFBB, the federation did not retain internal archives at this point in time and mining the French government’s Diplomatic Archives yielded scant material on the 1980 journey and nothing on the 1966 voyage…

Which is the most puzzling, vexing, and fascinating fact. For France was one of, if not the, first Western basketball team to visit the People’s Republic of China. Paris was the first major Western government to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1964. One can thus interpret the 1966 trip (and the visit to France by the Chinese men’s team earlier that year) as a reciprocal sports exchange designed to reaffirm amité and cement the new relationship. Reports from the French Embassy in China in 1965 and June 1966 make clear the importance that country gave to its burgeoning sports diplomacy efforts. Yet, not a single mention or itinerary for the delegation of 18 Frenchmen who made waves that summer. Stay tuned for more on this tantalizing tale.