In his early teens he was among the last to be picked for school sports teams. Now Christophe Lemaitre has been propelled into the media spotlight following a string of athletics wins and will be one to watch at London 2012
Christophe Lemaitre as a child never dreamed of becoming an athlete – and his rise to become one of the world’s best sprinters has been fast and unexpected. As a gangly, nervous teenager at school, he was much more interested in football, but says he was often made a “scapegoat”, teased, bullied and picked last for teams. He was not a great academic achiever either and it was not clear where he was heading. Suddenly that all changed, at the most unlikely of places: a village fete, aged 15.
Lemaitre’s talent for running fast was spotted by a sprint coach who was watching the activities at the Fête du Sport in Belley, near Aix-les-Bains. He started training at the local club, took part in his first professional competition a month before his 16th birthday and his personal bests have been steadily improving ever since.
But it was in June 2010 that Lemaitre exploded on to the international scene, becoming an overnight celebrity as Europe’s fastest sprinter – running the 100m in just 9.98 seconds at Valence and beating Ronald Pognon’s French record by one hundredth of a second. The media spotlight has been on him ever since, his personal best has fallen to 9.92 seconds, and hopes are high that he will do France proud at the Olympics this month.
British, Italian, Brazilian, Spanish and Japanese media have all flocked to Aix-les-Bains to find out more about Lemaitre’s past and his family – and they have usually unearthed very little. Jacques Wullschleger, a sports journalist at Le Matin in Switzerland, said: “We’re following Lemaitre closely because it’s quite phenomenal that he started athletics at 15 and just six years later he’s at the top. We admire his humility, kindness. He’s very introverted, quite atypical.”
Anne-Laure Bonnet, a journalist from Sky TV in Italy, added: “We want to understand more about his character. How, suddenly, at 15 he thought to himself: ‘Wow, I can run.’ He’s one of Europe's biggest sporting hopes at the moment and I think he represents something special for the public at large.”
While Usain Bolt – the world record holder at 9.58 seconds – has a larger-than-life personality, Lemaitre describes himself as “a little bit introverted”. He has started keeping his own blog, updating fans on his training and appearances, and holds occasional video chats in which he answers questions about the sport, but the television cameras have taken some getting used to.
His impressive 9.98-second win proved controversial in France – not because of the achievement itself, but because the media seemed more interested in his ethnicity. Lemaitre was described by many news outlets as the first white athlete to break the 10-second barrier. Some newspaper columns followed, looking at why black men ran faster. Lemaitre said at the time: “I will be recognised as the first white man to run it, but today is mainly historical for myself. It’
In a later interview, he added: “Talking about white sprinters, I find this absurd. This story is too much, I don’t like it. I had a good race, I broke the record, but there is not much more to say. I did what I had to do, that’s it.”
Shortly after the impressive win, Lemaitre went on to win three gold medals at the European Athletics Championships in Barcelona, for the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay – becoming the first man to achieve a hattrick of sprint gold medals at the event. L’Equipe named him French sportsman of the year.
Pablo Polo, a journalist for Marca in Madrid, told L’Equipe: “He surprised us all in Barcelona with his triple gold win. He stands a good chance at the London Olympics. We’re so used to seeing Jamaicans and Americans, not a slim white French guy.”
But Lemaitre shrugged when he was told he had entered the history books: “The history of French sprinting, yes, but let’s not say that I'm in the big league yet.
“Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay are part of a world to which I do not belong – well, not yet. I still do not really consider myself as a professional athlete, I am still learning. My main focus now is London.”
That is now starting to change, and Lemaitre has been praised recently by rival Gay, who said: “If he keeps developing, he has the tools to deliver an Olympic medal to France, I think.”
His achievements have also attracted the interest of academics. French researcher JB Morin at the University of Lyon has produced a lengthy scientific report looking at the physics behind Lemaitre’s performances.
The sprinter himself says he still has a lot of room for improvement. He is uncommonly thin and not as well built as his rivals. He also says he lacks some of the technical knowhow associated with the sport: “My knowledge of athletics is poor. I have started to fill in the gaps. I have immersed myself in the past, I have watched videos of Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Marie-José Pérec.
“Today, I follow the news closely, I watch the races of my 100m and 200m rivals on television. But I still do not have a strong technical eye for the sport. Most of the time, I just watch the clock at the finish.”
With no British men competing at his level, Lemaitre is hopeful the home audience at the London Olympics will be cheering him on. He said in a recent interview: “I wouldn’t be adverse to the idea of being supported by the British. I’d be happy to receive it.” A gold medal in London would be his first at a worldwide event, having previously picked up a silver and bronze at the World Athletics Championships.
But if it all ends as quickly as it began, Lemaitre remains realistic and has a back-up. Throughout his sporting work, he has also been keeping up his university studies at the Université de Savoie, on a four-year course covering industrial electrical engineering and technology, with a particular interest in renewable energy.
1990 Born June 11 in Annecy. Grew up in Culoz, near Aix-les-Bains
2005 Spotted by a sprint coach during a running event at village sports fair. Joined local athletics club
2006 First competitive appearance, just before his 16th birthday, sees him run 100m in under 11 seconds
2008 Junior world 200m champion
2010 Achieved 9.98 seconds at race in Valence. Went on to win three golds in European Athletics Championships in Barcelona and named French sportsman of the year by L’Equipe
2011 Breaks French 200m record, at 19.80 seconds. Shaves six hundredths of a second off 100m time, at 9.92 seconds
2012 Training for London Olympics. Ran 9.94 seconds at competition in Angers