Thursday, 12 May 2016

The sporting star who fell to earth

The Cimetière Sud de Saint-Mandé is notable for several oddities. Firstly, although it takes the name of a Paris suburb and is still managed by that town, it is today situated within Paris. Second curiosity, the barrier that separates the cemetery from Saint Mandé is the thunderous périphérique motorway, making it undoubtedly the noisiest graveyard in Paris.

It is also possibly the city’s least interesting cemetery, short of charm and celebrities (a sign at the entrance highlights a handful of ex-mayors and the wife of the founder of the Grevin waxworks museum). In one corner though, framed by a solid block of thriving horse chestnut trees, stands perhaps the cemetery’s single striking monument – the half-naked statue of a strong and healthy looking young man.

But just who is this verdigris demigod? A closer look at the tomb provides an answer - but also provokes further questions. His name was Calixte Delmas - a 'lutteur et rugger' (wrestler and rugby player) born January 17 1906 in the southern city of Perpignan. More poignently, the date of death reads April 5 1927. Tragically, the 21 year old had succombed to 'an accident at the école de Joinville'. Finally, at the bottom of the plinth is a bas-relief portraying wrestling and rugby and a list of his numerous sporting achievements.

This is the only time I have seen 'rugger' used to describe a person in France (today the term used is 'rugbyman', one of several curious anglicisms used in sporting contexts), but my ruminations drift elsewhere. What exactly had this 21 year old - forgotten today - done to inspire such a monument? What was the école de Joinville and exactly how did he die? The story is one of glory ending in grotesque calamity. 

Calixte Delmas was the offspring of a line of wrestlers, a southern dynasty of sport fanatics who also enjoyed gymnastics and rugby. The family were far from being burly giants though. Calixte, following in his father's footsteps, competed as a lightweight wrestler (less than 67kg), and lined up as a hooker for the Sang et Or rugby team, traditionally a post reserved for smaller players.

What he may have lacked in size and bulk, he made up for with talent. In 1922, aged just 15, he was already champion of Paris and the Greco-Roman vice-champion of France. Two years later he was national champion and the youngest participant at the 1924 Olympics, being held in Paris, where he reached the quarter finals.  

Like many French sportsmen, Calixte Delmas undertook his obligatory military service in the Joinville military school just outside Paris, an institution that provided the necessary facilities and support to help them maintain or improve their levels of performance. This school though would be the scene of a rather ridiculous tragedy one very ordinary Monday in April 1927.   

One of the exercises practiced by the school at their gymnastics sessions was a three-level human pyramid. Delmas - possibly as one of the smallest in the group - took his position at the top. Beneath him, another participant slipped, bringing down the pyramid. Delmas fell badly, landing directly on his head and breaking his neck. He died two days later.

A photo taken shortly before the accident demonstrates the media - and public -interest in his achievements, and was also clearly the visual source used by the sculptor of the statue, Raymond Sudre. His death was a shock to fellow athletes who were determined to mark his passing with a monument, but the success of the fundraising efforts showed that his renown stretched much further.

Alongside standard subscriptions, various events also brought in the resources necessary to finance the statue and plaque. In a somewhat typical années folles spirit, one such event in Paris was described as 'mi-sportive, mi-artistique', and brought together on stage opera singers and actors, weightlifters, wrestlers and boxers. 

Calixte Delmas' youth and grace, force and elegance seemed to span sport and art, and the sudden and brutal extinguishing of this vitality struck a note with a population sliding towards depression. A statue preserving this innocent vigour seems a suitable memorial.

The final word should be given to a certain A. Martel, author of an 'Ode' to Calixte Delmas published in the programme of a commemorative wrestling event.

"Pour toi, Delmas, dieu fort, plus beau qu'un marbre antique"

Sources: Most information for this post comes from


Terry said...

Fascinating and sad. I feel sorry for the poor young man whose slip caused the tragedy, too.

The Boy said...

Hello Adam, It's Betsy (Remember your write up on my mother and her novel "A Room in Paris")
It's always good to read about where you've been poking around. Paris has so many layers to un peel.
Thank you for keeping the history and mystery alive!

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