How France became a swimming superpower
After seven days of competition and with just one more to go, French Olympic swimmers have secured seven medals – including four gold – at the London Games. Their success is the fruit of a meticulous plan spawned 16 years ago in Atlanta.
Between the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and this year’s London Games, the difference in the French team's swimming performance is glaring. Sixteen years ago, French swimmers brought no medals back from across the Atlantic. But in 2012 they have claimed seven, including four gold during the eight days of competition.
Clearly it has been a team effort. But one man in particular, Claude Fauquet, has been credited with France’s tide of recent victories. After witnessing the debacle in Atlanta, and as the national swimming team’s technical director, Fauquet decided to overhaul the entire system and rebuild it using a series of strict rules.
The Fauquet Method, as his plan has been dubbed in France, focuses on applying very high standards to raise the performance levels of potential Olympians quickly – even if it means reducing the overall number of competitors.
While his may seem like an obvious plan of attack, Anne Riff, a coordinator at France’s swimming development centre in the southern city of Montpellier, says the Fouquet Method faced an uphill battle against an archaic system that dominated the sport in France for decades.
In the past French swimmers were pampered, and the bosses of regional swim clubs were given a wide margin to pick whoever they thought should wear the Olympic uniform.
“There are now stringent rules applied to select swimmers for international competitions," Riff told FRANCE 24. "[Fauquet] introduced stringent constraints on choosing who will represent France."
Swimmers consistently face times trials and must succeed in international competitions to qualify for more important tournaments, with no more exceptions made to favourites. The new, stiff standards meant that only nine French swimmers were sent to the World Swimming Championships in Perth, Australia, in 1998. But the team brought home three medals, including a gold in the 200-metre backstroke.
A new generation
The strategy implemented by Fauquet brought immediate results and silenced his detractors – especially after a new generation of world-class French swimmers debuted at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
In 2004, then 17-year-old Laure Manaudou became a household name in France when she won gold in the 400-metre freestyle. It was France’s first Olympic gold medal in the sport since Jean Boiteux finished first at the Helsinki Games 52 years earlier.
Manaudou and a handful of women swimmers from a training centre in the city of Melun, near the French capital, went on to claim six medals in Athens.
In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Alain Bernard and swimmers from the southern city of Marseille confirmed France’s newfound standing as a swimming powerhouse with the country’s first gold medal in the 100-metre freestyle, plus five additional medals.
Centres of excellence
But Fauquet’s draconian rules and standards have not been the only ingredient in France’s new recipe for success. While it put a new emphasis on quality over quantity, France’s Swimming Federation (FFN) has also worked hard over the past 16 years to build up a network of training centres that include both publicly funded and privately owned clubs.
“Our centres of excellence, which are subsidised by the government, work hand in hand with the best-performing swimming clubs and are the cornerstone of the swimming renaissance,” said Jean-Lionel Rey, a coach on the national team.
According to Rey, the nine national training centres across France, known as the "Poles France", work toward one single goal: to produce Olympic champions.
“We are preparing swimmers to reach Olympic and World Championship podiums, offering them the best possible training conditions,” Rey told FRANCE 24.
Backing the prestigious Poles France, the FFN also works closely with 29 early-recruitment centres that are in charge of identifying and mentoring potential world-class swimmers from a young age.
“We host tryouts to pick youths who will then train with us for a period of three to four years,” said Montpellier’s Riff. “Those we keep have to pass both physical and psychological tests.”
In London, Camille Muffat, 22, and Yannick Agnel, 20, have surfaced as France’s new swimming sensations. So far Muffat has picked up one gold, one silver and one bronze, while Agnel has clinched two gold and one silver medal. And in the penultimate day of competition in the pool Florent Manaudou, the younger brother of former Olympic champion Laure, shocked the world by storming to gold medal in the men's 50m freestyle.
Both athletes began their careers at the Olympic Nice Natation training centre, a private club in southeast France. For French coach Rey, this is evidence of the successful cooperation between the public Poles France centres and private ventures.
“The emergence of these structures, both public and private, create a winning atmosphere that is self-perpetuating, and a national team that is always more accomplished,” he said.
In less than two decades, team France has gone from irrelevance to a force matching other national swimming powerhouses. Eager fans have already been treated to Olympic glory in London, and there are several more laps to go.