LE COQ SPORTIF
Return of the rooster
During French cycling’s finest years, the Tour de France literally had Le Coq Sportif written all over it… only for the venerable firm to fall victim to bad business deals and intrigue. Like a phoenix risen from the flames, Le Coq Sportif is now sponsoring the Tour de France jerseys again.
The symbol of the rooster was originally given to the French by its enemies in the middle ages, a crude pun that worked on the word Gallus, meaning Gaul, and gallus, the name for a rooster. However France’s adversaries picked the wrong bird in their attempt to belittle the Gallic nation. The Gauls themselves embraced the idea, seeing it instead as a proud Christian symbol that represented the daily victory of day over night.
When another, more modern symbol of La Republique – the Tour de France – gets under way in Corsica, once again the Gallic rooster will be adorning the leaders maillot jaune thanks to the sponsorship from another French icon, Le Coq Sportif. Unlike the proud rooster, the story of Le Coq Spotif is an intriguing affair; in which the symbol of a nation became entrenched in a battle with a German giant before becoming a pawn in double-dealings sparked by a family feud, and led to a mysterious disappearance in South America.
Le Coq Sportif was born out of the woolen textiles business that was started by Émile Camuset in 1882. There are several different stories as to why Camuset decided to start making sports clothing, ranging from the fanciful – a late night conversation with a sports nut in a local bar – to the more realistic idea that Émile took some shrewd business advice from his son, who had seen an opportunity.
Either way, a decade after the Camuset family business started manufacturing sports clothing in their factory in Romilly-sur-Seine, the renamed Le Coq Sportif company had become a huge success in the French sports market, supplying the first sets of specialist clothing and tracksuits to French football and rugby teams. But Le Coq Sportif’s rise to mythical status came when the company secured a deal to make the yellow jersey for the Tour de France in 1951.
The yellow jersey, introduced in 1919, had at first been rejected by riders who didn’t wish to let their rivals spot them so easily, but by 1951 it had become an iconic prize. As Louison Bobet scored three brilliant Tour wins for France, through the fifties the race, as well as the brand, began to grow in stature and legend.
The Tour de France provided the ultimate heroic narrative for the French people and, as the Tour was first televised, and print and radio improved, cycling’s popularity soared. The epic struggles between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor inspired France in much the same way that Coppi and Bartali did in Italy in the forties. And in 1966 the French company put its recently redesigned triangular logo onto the yellow jersey.
It wasn’t the only company to have recognized the power of branding. In post-war Europe sports marketing had been rapidly developing, as Adi Dassler and his warring brother Rudolf fought hard to gain the upper hand for their respective sports shoe companies, Adidas and Puma. While the two German companies dominated the footwear market, neither one had yet moved into the world of textiles, and instead looked to expand their businesses by allying themselves with textile manufacturers to make sure they could offer sports teams packages of clothing and footwear. Thanks to its cycling sponsorship, Le Coq Sportif had become the biggest French sports brand and in 1966 the French firm penned a deal with Adidas that allowed Le Coq Sportif to produce sports clothing in France bearing the three-stripe logo of the German company.
To start with things went swimmingly. Adidas focused on making footwear, and Le Coq Sportif ruled the roost when it came to textiles. Each July Le Coq Sportif jerseys graced the shoulders of the greats, as Lucian Aimar, Roger Pingeon, and Eddy Merckx all rolled into Paris resplendent in Le Coq yellow jerseys.
In the early seventies things began to change. Not content with their share in the sports market, Adidas began to sell its own sports textiles. But problems arose when Adidas found out that the Camuset family had registered the three stripes symbol in France. A bitter battle began between the German giant and the Gallic rooster that would nearly end in the demise of the French brand. Adidas lost a lawsuit to claim ownership of the three stripes in France, and hit back aggressively in a bid to squeeze Le Coq Sportif out of the market. In no time, Le Coq started losing ground, and while Le Coq held bravely on to the yellow jersey, Adidas were quick to add their stripes to the Molteni jersey of Eddy Merckx, as he cannibalized the world of cycling.
Their aggressive push, combined with some bad decisions by the Camuset family, meant that by the mid-seventies Le Coq Sportif was on its knees. As the company wobbled, Adidas stepped up with an offer to buy them out – and regain ownership of the precious three stripes in France. History reared its ugly head when Mirielle Gousserey-Camuset, the daughter of Émile, who owned of 51% of the shares of Le Coq Sportif, refused to sell to the Dasslers. Mirielle had been an active member of the French resistance during the war, and couldn’t stand to see her family’s company sold to Germany. Realising that the stalemate would soon kill off an important French company, the French government decided to step in, and in 1976 they put forward the man they had chosen as the company’s saviour: André Guelfi.
Guelfi, who had made and lost several fortunes in fishing, was nurturing political ambitions; by buying up Le Coq as a favour to the French government, he knew he would be making himself some friends in very high places. The Camusets thought that they would have just the man to save Le Coq. What they couldn’t have foreseen was that Dédé la Sardine, as Guelfi was known, would soon drag Le Coq down into the murky waters of his own ambitions. Guelfi went to meet Horst Dassler, the son of Adi, who had taken over the business, and the two men hit it off. In no time at all the two ambitious men plotted a solution that would benefit them both.
Horst Dassler’s unorthodox ways of doing business had caused a rift between himself and his family. In Le Coq, he saw an opportunity to create a fall-back business. For Guelfi, the backing of Dassler would be the key to growing a business he had no real interest in running. So he secretly sold off a controlling stake in the company in return for Dassler’s help to build Le Coq into a global concern. The deal suited both men: the only problem was that the Dassler family, who Horst was now deceiving, could never know.
As Bernard Thévenet restored French pride in the Tour de France following years of Belgian dominance, pulling on a Le Coq Sportif Yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysées in 1978, in an office not too far away Horst Dassler’s employees were working overtime, performing dual tasks for both Adidas and Le Coq. They were sworn to secrecy, lest the Dasslers in Germany ever found out. Many of them used dual identities when checking into hotels, and had separate business cards printed up, depending on which company they were representing that day.
In the eighties thanks to Adidas’ backing Le Coq went from strength to strength, and reached a new audience when tennis player Yannick Noah won the French Open in Le Coq sportswear in 1983. Le Coq Sportif was becoming an international brand, but the company stayed true to its association with the Tour de France. France and the French were duly rewarded with a string of Tour de France victories from two new homegrown heroes, Breton Bernard Hinault and Parisian Laurent Fignon.
It was perhaps the greatest era of French cycling, and one that had Le Coq Sportif literally written all over it. The rooster logo appeared on the jerseys of the all-conquering Peugeot and Renault teams, as well as on the feet of another proud creature, Le Blaireau, Bernard Hinault. Interestingly, Hinault’s shoes that he wore to World Championship and Paris-Roubaix victories were manufactured by Adidas, but badged up as Le Coq Sportif.
By the mid eighties Le Coq Sportif symbolized everything that was great about French cycling… but castles made of sand will slip into the sea. After the 1988 Tour, Le Coq Sportif gave up its sponsorship of the Tour’s jerseys, and in 1989 Greg LeMond stood above a distraught Laurent Fignon to claim a Castelli-manufactured yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysées. Horst Dassler had passed away and left his businesses in desperate trouble. It was a dark time for the company: Guelfi had already been squeezed out by Dassler and Le Coq was in trouble.
After some serious number crunching from the accountants, Adidas (and Le Coq with it) fell into the hands of another shady name, the former owner of the La Vie Claire cycling team Bernard Tapie. Tapie, who had been involved in a match-fixing scandal in French football and been imprisoned for corruption, also held a world record for crossing the Atlantic in a single-hulled boat. Le Coq, too, found itself shipped transatlantic, sold off to American company Brown Shoe. Japanese brand Descente also took rights, and developed a Coq Sportif golfing line.
But the rooster wasn’t quite out of the mire Dédé la Sardine had dragged it into. In 1999, with only a small foothold in the tennis world, and not a single cycling team or product in their range, the struggling company was purchased by a group of investors that included the new CEO Olivier Jacques. While the French may have been hoping for another turnaround, there was instead one final bizarre twist to its tangled history. After he was ejected from the head of the company, Jacques was found to have masterminded the production of more than 140,000 counterfeit Adidas and Nike products, and was sentenced to two years jail, with a year suspended. Much in line with his predecessor Guelfi – who once fled Morocco following an attempted coup from which he allegedly embezzled – Jacques decided that relocation was better than jail time, and fled to South America, where he was last seen a long way from Paris, breeding race horses.
After all the years of deception and dealings, and the swashbuckling behavior of the likes of Dassler, Guelfi, and Tapie had passed, the Gallic rooster started to find its way back to its rightful spot in the heart of the peloton.
Le Coq Sportif’s resurrection was founded on its roots. The company returned to its original home in 2010 and, after refurbishing the original Le Coq factory in Romilly-sur-Seine, began production in France for the first time in twenty years. Just as soon as they did, the Le Coq Sportif logo once again began to appear on the jerseys of cycling teams, as first the Belgian Quick Step, and then the German Milram teams penned deals with the French clothing supplier.
In 2012 for the first time in over a decade, the world of cycling breathed a sigh of relief as the Tour finished in Paris without a hint of scandal. For many the race heralded a new beginning; in the race director’s car, Christian Prudhomme raised a glass of champagne and offered soundbites to journalists about a new era for the race, and for cycling.
But while the race was a victory for Brit Bradley Wiggins and the now truly international world of cycling, there was also a proud symbol of France once again gracing the winners yellow jersey, back arched, crowing in yet another new dawn: a victory over the darkness.