French athletes unite to remember victims of terror attacks

PARIS (AP) Football and rugby players, swimmers and skiers, fans and officials all united on Saturday in touching tributes for the 17 people killed in Paris in three days of bloodshed that rocked a nation to its core.

At two-time European rugby champion Toulon, a traditional pre-match song dating back more than 70 years was modified to pay homage to the victims of Wednesday’s murderous attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

That attack was followed by Friday’s deadly assault on a kosher supermarket in a further bloody rampage by terrorists linked to al-Qaida in Yemen, that horrified France and the watching world.

A minute’s silence was held before all football matches in the French and Spanish leagues.

But players, fans, and referees alike wanted to do much more to express their heart-felt sorrow.

Before Lille’s match against Caen, match officials joined players as they all linked arms to form a tight circle. The divide between officials and players – often so prominent when decisions are angrily contested on match day – was rendered completely irrelevant by the recent ghastly events.

Thousands of fans in stadiums across France, in Lille, Nice, Evian, Guingamp and Reims, held aloft placards saying ”Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), the cry that has raced around the world as a sign of defiance in wake of the attacks.

It has been displayed on placards, scrawled as graffiti, and shared millions of times on social media, and two-time Olympic champion Yannick Agnel donated his bonus money from a swim meet in the western Parisian suburb of Courbevoie to the magazine.

French rugby fans are traditionally among the most patriotic in sports, and this was the case in the south-eastern French city of Toulon.

A minute’s silence, where the players from Toulon and Racing Metro wore ”Je Suis Charlie” T-shirts as they stood side by side, was followed by applause. Then, the heartwarming local song dating from 1940 – called ”pilou-pilou” – was adapted to include a moving reference to Charlie Hebdo.

”I’ve rarely felt such strong emotions in a stadium,” Toulon coach Bernard Laporte said. ”There was a real solidarity between everyone, and it shows that sport has the power to bring people together and unite them.”

Olympic pole vault champion and indoor world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie stopped in a small meet at Aubiere in central France to listen as fans followed up the minute’s silence with spontaneous and prolonged applause.

There were tributes from French athletes performing abroad, too.

Olympic slalom bronze medalist Alexis Pinturault was among French racers who wore ”Je Suis Charlie” messages on their helmets at an Alpine skiing race in Adelboden, Switzerland.

On the podium after finishing second to World Cup overall leader Marcel Hirscher, the emotional Pinturault then held up a note saying ”Je Skie Charlie” (I Ski Charlie) as a poignant play on words.

”For me it was important to show my solidarity,” Pinturault said. ”It’s a little bit complicated to understand everything, but this could happen in Switzerland one day. You never know when this attack will happen.”

After his powerful header helped Swansea earn a 1-1 draw with West Ham in the English Premier League, French striker Bafetimbi Gomis sprinted to the touchline to grab a French flag and held it skyward as he tilted his head back to take in the moment.

There was one sour note amid the flow of tributes, however, as fans of Corsican side Bastia used the occasion to take an aggressive swipe at Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari owners.

A small group of fans at Stade Furiani held aloft a banner reading ”Le Qatar Finance Le PSG … Et Le Terrorisme” (Qatar funds PSG … And Terrorism).