If the political order seems demanding, it is because the medal ranking table goes beyond the sporting issue. A tool of international influence, Olympic prowess reflects the power of a nation. In 1960, at the Olympic Games in Rome, General de Gaulle was bewildered when he observed the results of the French delegation: five small medals, none of which were gold, which paled in comparison to the 42 of the unified German team and the 36 from Italy. “If France shines abroad through its thinkers, its scholars, its artists, it must also shine through its athletes”, he aims. French sport then changed.
He obtained state support and public funding: a Secretary of State for Youth and Sports was appointed (Maurice Herzog, the famous mountaineer), equipment flourished throughout the territory, physical education became compulsory in school exams, sports federations appear, Insep is created in 1975. The years that follow see France improve, without impressing. Over the last ten Summer Olympics, French athletes rank between sixth (1996, 2000, 2008 and 2016) and eleventh place (1988) in the medal table, and have never obtained more than 43 “charms” . Hence the Gaullist accents of Emmanuel Macron, because fifth place seems far away. In 2021 in Tokyo, we found Russia with 70 medals.
Individualization of courses
To gain power, France has started a real revolution. Since 2019, a new structure, the National Sports Agency (ANS), has been working to reform French sport. His approach: the ultra-individualization of athlete monitoring. Directed by Claude Onesta, former coach of the national men’s handball team, it financially supports, as a priority, the champions identified as potential medalists and the disciplines that provide talent. The ANS, whose budget in 2023 amounts to 463 million euros, has drawn up a list of 107 names, which it cherishes.
Sarah Noutcha, who trains at Insep, is included. His silver medal in team saber at the World Fencing Championships in Cairo in 2022 allowed him to be spotted. She thus benefits from financial aid of approximately 19,500 euros per year and from a special status to join the army at the start of the school year… “It’s significant help, not given to everyone and I I am well aware, ”she admits under the tricolor flag of the Insep weapons room. “This model borrows heavily from the Australian system, which has the most medals relative to its population. It also copies that of the British,” explains Patrick Clastres, historian of sport and Olympism at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland). In 2005, when London won the organization of the 2012 Olympic Games, British sport was changing. Destitute at the Atlanta Games in 1996 (36th in the standings, only one Olympic title), he immediately created the UK Sport agency, which inspired the ANS, and applied the method of individualization. London 2012 becomes a triumph: with 65 medals, Great Britain finishes third in the medal table.
Haute couture follow-up
In concrete terms, the ANS identifies future champions thanks to performance centers scattered throughout France. From Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe) to Dijon (Côte-d’Or) via Montpellier (Hérault) and Cesson-Sévigné (Ille-et-Vilaine), the ambition of this territorial network is to not let any talent. “No one should escape us. In Poitiers (Vienne), the house is an open door. In particular, it has established a link with the French Sailing Federation, one of whose centers is located in La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime)”, explains Hervé Le Deuff, director of Creps (Center for resources of expertise and sports performance) of the city, which hosts the house of Poitevin performance.
On the Atlantic coast, the difference is immediately felt. Charline Picon, gold medalist in windsurfing in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), in 2016, and silver, in Tokyo (Japan), in 2021, now benefits from an operating budget 30% higher than what she had before. In January 2023, this additional envelope allowed her to do an internship in Martinique accompanied by a personal trainer.
Far from the Caribbean swell, in his office at Insep, director Fabien Canu appreciates the results of the metamorphosis of French sport. “Now, we support our athletes as if we were doing haute couture,” he observes. Nutrition, psychological follow-up, scientific techniques and materials… all the dimensions of the high level are meticulously worked on.
Since 2020, in connection with this ramp-up, Insep’s performance division has represented a third of the establishment’s workforce. “An awareness has recently taken place in France: the nations that invest the most money in research and scientific support missions achieve the best performance”, explains Gaël Guilhem, director of the Sport, expertise and performance laboratory of the institute.
Performance and competition
However, time cannot be bought. “The British took more than a decade to reap the fruits of their labor in 2012. We want to do the same in just five years”, tempers Patrick Clastres. Moreover, as the Paris Olympic deadline approaches, the ambitious objective of fifth place in Paris begins to be put into perspective. “The ANS, created for 2024, is also long-term. 2028 in Los Angeles (United States) is not that far away,” says Yann Cucherat, member of the agency and manager of the Gagner project in France.
Provided that funding is renewed after 2024, a question that currently remains unresolved. The competition between the athletes becomes tougher: “We abandon the egalitarian principle. We put the financial package on some, at the risk of forgetting others. This is a limit of the new model, which puts sports federations, clubs and athletes in competition with each other for funding. Very high performance becomes very high competition,” continues historian Patrick Clastres.
The day ends at Insep. Athletes leave dojo, swimming pool and gymnasium for the locker rooms. Most of them are not on the ANS list but everyone hopes to have their place in Paris, the dream of a lifetime. “The state is imposing pressure on itself that is not ours,” puts weightlifter Redon Manushi into perspective. We will do our best in any case. After all, at the Olympics, the important thing is to participate.