Why Paris is the perfect city to introduce break dancing to the Olympics
Along with surfing, climbing and skateboarding, break dancing has been proposed for inclusion at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. While fans of the sports have been delighted by the news, it has provoked some criticism too, not least from followers of sports such as squash and karate which will not be considered for the 2024 games.
But the inclusion of break dancing in Paris 2024 would not be a complete surprise. Indeed, there are several reasons why it would actually make sense. Firstly, break dancing proved itself as a popular event when it was included in the Youth Olympics for the first time at Buenos Aires in 2018. Secondly, the launch of break dancing as an Olympic sport in 2024 would fit with the very ethos of the Paris games.
The Paris 2024 organising committee plan to locate Olympic events in two key areas – a Central Paris zone and a Greater Paris zone. The Olympic Marathon will pass many central Parisian landmarks, archery will take place near the Eiffel Tower, at Esplanade des Invalides, and the road cycling will travel along the Champs-Elysees. Meanwhile, athletics events as well as the opening and closing ceremonies will take place outside central Paris, in the Stade de France.
So why does this mean that break dancing should have a place in the 2024 games? The Stade de France – like much of the Greater Paris zone – is located in Seine-Saint-Denis, a part of Paris’s suburban fringe that is said to be the birthplace of hip hop in France. Including an event like break dancing would not just be a big moment for urban culture worldwide, but important for French culture in the capital too.
Hip hop culture is big in France overall. Indeed, the hip hop market in France is now the second largest in the world, after the USA. And since the 1980s, break dancing, rap music, and graffiti have been particularly popular in the often-impoverished “banlieues” outside many major French cities.
However, French politicians have often been suspicious of break dancing. Within French rap music, there is an at times aggressive critique of French politicians and the police. Leading rap groups such as NTM, Sniper and La Rumeur have used their music to blame both groups for injustices and inequalities experienced by young people in the banlieues.
In an attempt to change negative perceptions, several films, including Jean-Pierre Thorn’s Génération hip hop ou le mouv’ des ZUP (1996), Faire kiffer les anges (1997) and On n’est pas des marques de vélo (2003), have shown how important hip hop culture has been in giving young people from such areas a powerful means of expression. Thorn’s 2010 film 93, La Belle Rebelle sought to reinforce the idea that areas such as Seine-Saint-Denis are characterised by cultural diversity and dynamism. The film showed how many varied performers have come from the often stigmatised area, including well-known figures such as Serge Teyssot-Gay from the rock group Noir Désir, slam artist Grand Corps Malade and members of the iconic French rap group NTM.
Professor Dayna Oscherwitz has argued too that hip hop culture has become the dominant vehicle for urban youth from the banlieues to articulate their vision of the world. She says that it allows them to describe the reality of life in the banlieues, and to highlight the problems they face.
Including break dancing at Paris 2024 would connect the games with the urban culture of the area surrounding the Stade de France. It would see the French capital embracing a discipline often associated with its outer suburbs rather than the city centre, and provide a means to engage with young people too. It may even go some way to dispelling the negative reports more often coming out of these areas.
Prior to London 2012, sports activist Mark Perryman argued that the Olympics can, and should, become more inclusive. Crucially, Perryman argued that the Olympics would be more successful if more events were free for spectators to attend. He cited the Tour de France as an example of a highly profitable major sporting event that is free for spectators. Perryman also argued that the Olympics should favour sports which are accessible to participants because they do not require expensive equipment. This last point provides a good argument for the inclusion of break dancing. No specialist equipment or professional training is necessarily needed to begin break dancing.
However, it is important to add a note of caution. If Olympic break dancing is to successfully engage young people from Paris’s banlieues, this will partially depend on them being able to buy tickets. The distribution and pricing of tickets for some Olympic events attracted criticism at Rio 2016 and London 2012. Empty seats were visible at several venues, notably due to tickets remaining unsold or being given to sponsors who did not use them.
On one hand, the symbolic importance of including break dancing in the Paris 2024 games should perhaps not be overstated. However, this one event could help anchor the games within the areas in which many venues will be located, as well as re-energise the Olympic movement for a young, urban audience both in France and worldwide.