Aviation, boxing, gymnastics, sailing, motor racing … Monaco’s princes and the management of Société des Bains de Mer did much to bring these sports into the public eye.
Each spring Monaco thrills to the excitement of the Formula 1 Grand Prix and the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters tennis tournament. These events have their roots deep in the Principality’s history. Prince Albert I was mad about sports and so loved to sail the oceans that he was known as the “sailor prince”. In those days a new clientele was coming to Monaco and Marie Blanc encouraged her husband François, founder of the Société des Bains de Mer, to offer leisure activities for their guests. Their son Camille Blanc, who headed the company after them, was a sportsman himself as well as a patron of sports.
The Principality’s first regatta was held in 1862, under François Lefebvre. The boats set off from Etablissement des Bains at La Condamine, with two orchestras taking turns to play light music and opera tunes in the establishment’s salons. By 1889 the regatta was an international event: English, French and Italian yachts took part, with the Duke of Hamilton’s yacht moored alongside Baron Rothschild’s. Very soon the crowned heads and aristocrats of Europe were flocking to the annual regatta aboard their yachts.
The first tennis court
On the advice of Marie Blanc, the Société des Bains de Mer set up a pigeon shooting range. That lawn hosted tennis matches from 1880 until 1928 when the Monte Carlo Country Club opened, with René Lacoste playing on a clay court. Incidentally, French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen, dressed by Jean Patou, played and won 11 finals in Monaco. She used to play women’s doubles with the American Elisabeth Ryan, her favourite partner. The Principality tuned in to women’s sports from an early date. A few women were already daring to play the same sports as men in the 19th century, but it was World War I that speeded up the process. In 1921, with the approval of the International Sporting Club, 300 young French, English, Swiss and Czech women took part in an athletics competition on the pigeon shooting lawn. It was a world first. They vied for supremacy in hurdling, weight throwing and basketball, clad in long shorts, long socks and sailor tops or long tunics. Within a few years there was so much interest in these games that qualifying heats were held to pick the best women athletes.
The Grand Prix Automobile at 80 kph
In the late 19th century, fencing was the gentleman’s sport and much in vogue on the Cote d’Azur. So naturally Monaco took it up, holding a number of tournaments that drew the fencing elite. Pioneers of aviation and every other airborne sport have also homed in on Monaco. It was here that the French engineer Maurice Léger made the first attempt at helicopter flight in 1907. At a time when air shows in France and abroad were drawing big crowds, Camille Blanc launched an air race from Monaco to Cap Martin – 8.80km there and back across the sea. Henri Rougier set off from the harbour quayside in his biplane Gabriel Voisin, cleared the sea wall construction work and flew over the waves. Soon after that, he made the first flight over La Turbie and the Tête de Chien. Rougier loved speed, he also and won the first Monte Carlo Automobile Rally, funded by René Léon, deputy manager of S.B.M. The rally circuit through the town was the brainchild of Anthony Noghès. To this impressive list of sports we should add pelota and boxing. Monaco hosted the European middleweight championship fight in 1914, when French boxer Georges Carpentier beat Jim Sullivan of Britain. All thoroughly international!
As part of the commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Prince Albert I, Monaco Media Library is organising a heritage exhibition called “La Belle Epoque sportive: rayonnement et innovations sous le règne d’Albert Ier” (Sport in the Belle Epoque: influence and innovations during the reign of Albert Ier).
Until 10 April 2022, Salle du Quai Antoine Ier