If you think Olympic sport in the U.S. is contentious, over athlete expression, sponsorship rights and protests, consider what’s going on in France!
Last week’s elegant ceremony to honor France’s Olympic and Paralympic medal winners at the glittering Elysee Palace in Paris was expected to be a time for celebration and salutations. But French President Emmanuel Macron had a different idea – and a sterner tone – in mind.
France won 33 medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games and 54 at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, placing 10th on the total-medals rankings for both the Olympics (10-12-11) and Paralympics (11-15-28). The Olympic medal total was down from 42 (10-18-14) in Rio in 2016, when France tied for fifth in the medal total with Germany. The Paralympic total was the most since 2004.
And Macron saluted many of these stars by name, then slammed his nation’s Olympic medal output (computer translation of Macron’s remarks from French):
“However, I must say to our Olympic medalists that despite these fine results, despite the magnificent return to the front of the stage by [swimmer] Florent Manaudou, despite the Homeric resistance to the pain of [decathlete] Kevin Mayer, we all remember it, and I have besides, a thought for [vaulter] Renaud Lavillenie too, despite the efforts on the water level of [sailors] Thomas Goyard and Charline Picon or on the tatami, [taekwondoin] Althea Laurin and without wanting to damage this united France team, one thing is clear:
“Paralympic sport has crushed you!”
Slap no. 1. But Macron, 43, was only getting warmed up:
“So, dear medalists, your medals belong to you for eternity.
“You must savor these moments, take advantage and the elders who are there, by your side, can testify to it. But don’t enjoy it for too long!
“First of all because these medals are a responsibility for a long time and those who have won medals before know it. We look at you differently, the pressure is not the same. You have a responsibility towards the young and the generations that follow you and which is now different.
“But above all because that is why we are now holding this ceremony, we must all together prepare for the rest and our 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“The overall record of these Olympic Games is not quite at the level we expected. We know that in certain sports, it is even mixed and we cannot build success if we do not tell each other the truth.
“And so, celebrating today, I mean, a few words about how we’re going to prepare for the sequel right now because we don’t have three years to prepare for them. We have a few useful months of making the hardest choices, two years of hard work, and a year of tuning. It is not at the last moment that we will have to tackle the problems that are clearly emerging now.”
Macron noted that the government is already committed to €110 million [~$129 million U.S.] in support of elite sport in the country, plus another €100 million [~$117 million] for the national Centre Technique et Sportif (CTS). Then he got out his paddle:
“We are already doing a lot. We do more than the others, that is not always said, and I want us to be able collectively to be aware of it and to be proud of it. And …we have identified an additional commitment, an investment additional, in particular to accompany the high performance. Because all of this is not enough.
“Our British neighbors, to take just this example, today invest less public funds than us, yet they have better results than ours [65 Tokyo medals] because they have also been able to completely change their methods, concentrate their resources at the time of their own Olympic Games [in 2012]. And we saw them do it, that’s when they passed us in the medal ranking. There is no inevitability, it is up to us.”
Macron explained that money must be put into athletes and events which have the best chance for medals, training programs for French athletes must be individualized and more investment is needed in coaches: “This is the new relationship built with the federations.”
He called for the creation of a collegiate system to advance the progress of talented high school-age athletes, and a program to help retired athletes transition to their next stage in life. But he also laid out the challenge for 2024:
“I’m telling you very clearly, we have to do a lot more.
“Much more because these are our Games, it’s at home and it’s expected. And the higher, faster, stronger together, if it has to apply, it is good for these Games. And so it is necessary for each federation, for each athlete, to put the maximum pressure on ourselves.
“France can very clearly one day integrate permanently into the top-five Olympic and Paralympic [medal winners], I believe. But for that, we have to project ourselves over the long term. I therefore want to say to all those whose profession and passion are of the highest level that what we are going to do together goes well beyond this meeting in Paris.”
He closed by promising to bring sports programming into schools, where it has been missing, as a way to teach lifetime fitness. But that’s not what drew most of the post-speech interest.
Macron’s charge to the medal winners and the French federations to win a lot more medals in 2024 was big news in France. It also placed three-time Olympic gold medalist Teddy Riner, one of the greatest judokas in history and a national hero, in the middle of the debate.
Riner remarked prior to the ceremony, “To think that we are going to win 90 medals in Paris 2024, I would like to believe it! But it was necessary to invest already seven years back in sport, massively,” and then found himself on the defensive, as his remarks were seen afterwards as a slap-back at Macron.
“[I]t is completely false when we say that I tackled President Emmanuel Macron. … No, I never attacked the President of the Republic. His speech Monday night was right. Yes, our results in Tokyo were not as good as we could have hoped, yes, we will make sure to do better in 2024. And what I said about the fact that, to have 90 medals in 2024, it would have been necessary to invest well before, I think, but I said these words before the reception, and therefore absolutely not in response to a so-called shouting at the President.”
This was pretty heavy stuff from Macron, especially a first-term President facing a national election in April 2022, to a room full of French sporting heroes. But he has set the bar: top five on the Olympic medal table in 2024, with the top three – U.S., China and Russia – already set.
And we can expect to hear more from Macron, as he said, “it is necessary for each federation, for each athlete, to put the maximum pressure on ourselves.”
In the 1920s, France’s Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Movement, wrote “the essential is not to have won by to have fought well.” In the 2020s, in France, not so much.
So much for fun, camaraderie and joie de vivre on the road to the 2024 Games. Wow; gone already.
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