Finding 10 famous French athletes is an exercise in looking far outside the realm of popular American sports. The French grow up playing soccer, not basketball and football. They favor track and field to baseball, and would rather spend their winter months skiing than playing ice hockey. Here are ten of the most famous French athletes, though don’t be surprised if you only recognize a few of the names.
- André the Giant. 7 foot 4. 500 pounds. Bone crusher. Wrestling champion. Wild-haired maniac. Fezzik. The 8th Wonder of the World. Stand up guy. Outstanding citizen. All of these things and more describe one of France’s ten great athletes of all time, André the Giant. The Giant passed at an early age because his heart couldn’t keep up with his immense size, but in his short time on Earth André made a lasting impact.
- Zinedine Zidane. Despite his storied international footballing career and status as one of the great soccer players of all time, Gallic working class hero Zinedine Zidane is best known for the headbutt heard round the world. His cracking display of cranial violence got him booted from the World Cup 2006 final and ended his career, though not before he brought the cup home in 1998.
The Goitschel Sisters. Two of the great and most famous French athletes of all time, the fabulously skiing Goitschel Sisters, who medaled at both the ’64 and ’68 Olympics, were as well known for the dominance of their sport as they were their mischievous sense of humor.
- Michel Platini. Soccer great and famous French athlete Michel Platini’s style of play was so effervescent it was known as “Champagne Football.” Platini helped the French national team reach the World Cup semifinals in both ’82 and ’86, and win the European Championship in ’84. Michel is now the president of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body.
- David Douillet. France’s most famous martial artist, Douillet became the first heavy weight judo triple medalist at the 2000 Sydney games, where he won his second gold medal (the third of his triple crown is a Bronze from Barcelona ’92).
- Thierry Henry. Thierry Henry moved to the New York Redbulls—technically based in New Jersey, but then so are the New York Giants—in 2010 as the latest European great to become a soccer ambassador in the United States. Henry played on the World-Cup winning ’98 squad alongside Zidane, and contributed to a number of great seasons for English Premier League greats Arsenal.
- Karine Ruby. Karine Ruby is one of France’s most famous athletes as much for her accomplishments as she is for her untimely death. In 1998, Ruby became the first female Olympic gold medalist in snow boarding. She would dominate her sport for nearly a decade. Eleven years after Ruby won her first Olympic gold, she died in a mountaineering accident.
- Marie Jose-Perec. Though less known than her American male counterpart Michael Johnson, Marie Jose-Perec pulled off the same stunt at the Olympic games in Atlanta. The track star won the gold in both the 400m and 200m events, becoming only the second woman in history to do so. Jose-Perec is also the first woman to ever to win gold in the 400m event at two different Olympic games.
- Eric Cantona. Were it not for his prickly demeanor and unfathomable arrogance, Cantona might well be remembered as Zidane’s near-equal. In his storied career at Manchester United, where he won four titles in five years, Cantona was one of the first, and greatest, foreign athletes to dominate England’s Premier League.
- Dominique Wilkins – What the? 'Nique? Seriously? Believe it or not, the Human Highlight Film, one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history, was born in Paris. Of course, Nique is American, but he came into the world amongst the beautiful boulevards of the City of LIghts on account of his father, who was an American solider stationed there. The man who gave Michael Jordan a run for his money on a number of occasions is one of the most famous French athletes ever.
ESPN: Marie Jose-Perec
Eric Cantona.com: Biography
NBA.com: Dominique Wilkins