Winning Paris 2024 is the ultimate adventure

Laura spoke to us between trips to Uganda for the Amref/Stand Up for African Mothers bid to train 15,000 midwives

Fencer Laura Flessel fought for France at five Olympics, winning five medals – including two gold at Atlanta ’96 – and carried the flag at London 2012. Today, she is part of the team bidding to win Paris the 2024 Olympics

As an Olympic icon, what would the 2024 Games in Paris mean?

The Olympic Games are the most important competition for any highlevel athlete – after preparing for four years and being selected, it is magical.

As athletes, we dream of being at this incredible event at least once. I have felt a huge energy in my five Olympic Games. Not just an amazing human adventure, there is also an undeniable economic factor for a
country like France, as the host country benefits from tourism for 10 years afterwards. The sailing will be in Marseille while the football will be in nine cities, so it’s not only Paris, it’s truly a magical national event.
I am a double Olympic champion and I was in Atlanta, Sydney, Beijing, Athens and London; Paris 2024 would be a tremendous opportunity to give back what I have received and return the favour and make a contribution in orderto enable the youth of 2024 to live what I have had the chance to live.

As an athlete I have always deemed every Olympics as a dream and in my mind I will always remain an athlete, so Paris 2024 is a dream. When I was 13, I saw Carl Lewis at the Olympics in Los Angeles and I thought: ‘This is what I want to do!’. Twenty years later I had the luck to meet him and his first words were: “You belong to the Olympic family.” While we talked I felt we were talking about the same religion, the joys we had lived. We also mentioned our conversion and career changes to make sport and international relations evolve and improve. This is what I find outstanding. It is not only the Olympics: it is life as a whole.

What role do you hope to play to support the Paris candidacy?

After two failed candidacies when the Games went to other nations, we are eager to make the most of everybody’s strengths and skills. Right at the start I was among those who conducted the feasibility study and jointly led a workshop on volunteering in order to help promote our values and abilities to win the Olympic bid.

A think-tank of athletes for Paris 2024 has been created to look at everyone’s strengths to work efficiently together on the campaign at the appropriate time.

Are you officially involved in the candidacy?

As an athlete I committed to Paris 2024 a while ago. Today we have an athlete committee; our logic is not only to associate one or two iconic athletes but rather a mix of all our athletes as we have top-of-the-bill
competitors in every Olympic sport. Unity is strength!

Were you disappointed to see Paris lose out to London for the 2012 Olympics?

An athlete’s main goal is to always seek excellence; it means we are able to reposition ourselves to understand and try to acquire the winning features that made our competitors successful the last time. Since the 2012 bid, our teams have evolved and moved; ideas have improved and now our aim is to be constructive and positive to win this time.

What sort of impact does the Olympics have on more minority sports, such as fencing?

Fencing is a major medal winner for France but many sports with limited audience and little media coverage survive essentially because of the Olympics as the Games give recognition. A sport is considered ‘major’ if it features in the Olympics so it is an extra way to mark our territory as several other sports want to join the Olympics. However, the Olympics are not the only way to draw media attention.

For instance, I have been at the top for 20 years. The media still follow me and fencing because we have managed to convey some important values too. At the end of my career I asked myself what I could do for fencing, so I decided to set up Clichy Escrime, which has racked up 160 members in two years. The club aims to pass on the principles and values I have had for 35 years. Our vision is to open and share; we are open to both fit and handicapped people. So, the Olympics are a perfect springboard but we also need to support the clubs to keep the spirit after the Olympics.

Have your successes and the French fencing team’s successes enabled sport’s development?

We know that following the Olympics there is a spike in the statistics: the number of participants rises by between 15% and 20% – sometimes even more in sports like judo. Winning medals attracts new faces.
Following the London Olympics, which were not positive for the French fencing team, we have seen a slight drop of participants. We have kickstarted a new cycle ahead of the Rio Olympics. Our fencers who did
not do so well in London are now fully prepared for Rio.

You previously mentioned the ‘unifying aspect’ of the Games, after taking part in five Olympics, including London 2012, would you say there is a different vision towards sports in the UK?

No, we are all passionate. Britain staged a beautiful Olympics. Once our defeated bid was forgotten, we did not complain about it. We told ourselves we would go to London to win, what matters is to have an Olympic team that represents France. We were given a warm welcome. The 2012 Olympics were very open, very welcoming – and we benefited from the proximity between France and the UK, so friends and families came to visit.

It was magnificent. For my part, the cherry on the cake was that for my fifth and last Olympic Games I had the honour of being captain of the French team. I was the flag-bearer but also captain of a multiethnic, inter-generational and multidisciplinary team.

In the end it does not matter where the games take place – the games were beautiful in Athens, Sydney or Beijing, too – the only thing was maybe the weather: for a summer Olympics it was not too warm (laughs).

Do you believe Parisians will support the Paris bid as much as Londoners did at the time?

Even more so. Today there is a huge ambition, we are competitors but there is also the reality of the situation. There are many expectations from the IOC, from other countries, from French people and from the world ofsports. We have standards to meet to obtain the Olympics. The more we explain, the more we communicate, the more people will believe that the Games could take place in Paris and therefore we are going to woo those who love Paris and France.

We have a good candidacy and excellent venues – 70% of them already exist. We will draw inspiration from London, from what developed from that legacy. Everything looks good on paper. Now we have to be patient, listen and innovate.

You are also patron of the 2018 Gay Games that will take place in Paris, why, and do you think this could benefit the Paris 2024 bid?

I agreed to be patron of the gay games straight away, to prove commitment. It is not enough to just fill in some paperwork; we also need to be out in the field, discrimination is everywhere. Sport must set an example.

I have been president of the ethics and values committee (the former committee against discrimination) but we cannot bury our heads in the sand: discrimination exists and the more we develop pedagogical tools to educate and the more we communicate the more the situation will improve.

I have seen friends and even my parents suffer from this lack of tolerance. Supporting the fight does not mean things will change but it will help change to come and this is important to me. I was proud to go to Cleveland with the team to the Gay Games which are obviously not reserved for homosexuals but open to everyone. This event will convey positive images.

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