France’s Silliest Race: The Course des Cafés

By Claire Wilson 

April 7, 2024

When you think of races in France, the Paris Marathon and the Tour de France are typically what come to mind. This year, the Course des Cafés is gaining popularity. In this race, around 200 waiters from across Paris speed walked 1.2 miles, balancing a tray with a croissant, a coffee cup, and a glass of water. Contestants were required to wear the traditional waiter’s uniform: a white top, black trousers and a waiter’s apron. In past races, they were required to wear black formal shoes, but this year, athletic shoes were allowed. 

Contestants were judged based on finishing time and how much water had spilled. “At the finish line, judges checked the ‘integrity’ of the contestants’ trays,” writes Aurelien Breeden of the New York Times. “Any glass of water below a 10-centimeter gauge line inflicted a 30-second penalty. Empty glass? That’ll be one minute. Broken dishes? Two minutes. Something missing? Three. Lost your platter? Disqualified.”

Photo credit: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA, via Shutterstock
Winners Samy Lamrous and Pauline Van Wymeersch pose after the race (Photo credit: Benoît Diacre - The French Studio)

Men's winner Samy Lamrous finished the race in 13 minutes and 30 seconds. “You have to keep it balanced with all these people cheering you on,” says Lamrous. “In the end, I managed to come back from behind, Paris style." 

Top scoring waitress Pauline Van Wymeersch, who works at cafe Le Petit Pont, completed the race in 14 minutes 12 seconds. Her decades of experience are ultimately what pushed her to the top. “We do this for 12 hours every day, including weekends and holidays,"said Van Wymeersch after the race. The winners received medals, as well as two tickets each for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics and a stay in a fancy Paris hotel. 

This year’s race was held to promote the upcoming 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. In the early days of this tradition, however, the race was held to “highlight this French style of service, these establishments that are envied the world over, this Parisian way of life," says deputy mayor Nicolas Bonnet-Oulaldj. The race seems to be just that; a charming and uniquely French kind of event. Spectator Renée Ozburn says, “it’s one of those ‘only in Paris’ kind of things.”

Photo credit: AP
Photo credit: Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images

In 1914, the very first waiter’s race, the Course des Garçons de Café, was held. Nowadays, the term “garcon,” or boy, is rarely used to refer to waiters, so the name was changed to The Course des Cafés. For decades it was sponsored by the L’Auvergnat de Paris, a newspaper dedicated to cafe and bistro owners who migrated from the Auvergne region of France. In 2008, the paper faced severe financial difficulties and was sold. A year later, it was liquidized by the Paris Commercial Tribunal. Due to lack of funding, the last race was held in 2011. 

This year, the race was sponsored by the city’s water utility, Eau de Paris. General director, Benjamin Gestin, who came in 106th place says, “we wanted to highlight water, the raw material of all Parisian cafes. The goal is reached!” Paris Deputy Mayor and president of Eau de Paris, Dan Lert, explained that the race would also serve as “part of a public relations campaign to encourage people to drink more tap water and consume fewer single-use plastic water bottles,” according to Joshua Berlinger of Aljazeera. 

Photo credit: Gamma-Keystone Via Getty Images

In addition to celebrating Paris’s water infrastructure, the race was also a way to boost Parisian morale. Marcel Bénézet, the president of the cafe, bar and restaurant branch of the Groupement des Hôtelleries et Restaurations de France, explains that Paris has “faced a string of crises over the past decade that harmed businesses: terrorist attacks, violent protests, Covid-19 lockdowns and rising inflation.” This event was the perfect way for Parisians to celebrate their unique cafe culture and the anticipation of the Summer Olympics.