When one of its immense champions loved by the media brings his career to an end, nothing is quite the same for the French team competing in his sporting discipline. But as the new biathlon season gets underway, the team is not short of successors. A word of explanation.
A triumphant departure
When Martin Fourcade decided to hang up his spurs, he did so in style, ending his outstanding career with two world championship titles in Antholz-Anterselva (Italy). As is always the case with these great champions when they retire from active competitions, they either create a void or a burden for those left behind them: either the presence of the great champion masks the fact that there’s nobody to replace them or, when successors do exist, they live partially in the shadow of their achievements. Their legacy often proves to be an extremely ponderous burden!
A great deal is immediately expected from their up-and-coming successors… to such an extent that, for certain disciplines, the towering dominance of the champion conceals the fact that there is nobody there to replace them! The case of French tennis provides a good example with Yannick Noah, a champion unrivalled by any subsequent French player capable of winning a Grand Slam tournament, or Alain Prost in Formula 1, who has never seen any subsequent French drivers become world champion. The exploit of Jean-Claude Killy, who won three Olympic gold medals in 1968 in all three alpine skiing events, has never been equaled in France despite the fact that French skiing has seen many other champions in individual disciplines. And we are still waiting for someone to succeed Laurent Fignon, the last Frenchman to win the Tour du France.
This is not the case in the Olympic disciplines, however, where the French team always manages to renew its generations of champions. Athletics has managed to find replacements for the world-beating Marie-Jo Pérec, not at her outstanding level perhaps (three Olympic titles) but at a very high level nevertheless, in the person of Christine Arron, Eunice Barber or Renaud Lavillenie. In swimming, after Laure Manaudou retired from competitive swimming, a whole generation of great swimmers such as Alain Bernard, Yannick Agnel, the late Camille Muffat or Florent Manaudou, Laure's brother, kept the flame of French swimming alive. And in the biathlon too, France is managing to maintain a team of high-level athletes.
Break in continuity
Thus, when Raphaël Poirée ended his career on March 11, 2007 after a legendary sprint against his archrival Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who pipped him at the post in the mass start event with a lead of just a few poor centimeters, Vincent Defrasne won the individual event in the first stage of the next World Cup in Kontiolahti, Finland. And Martin Fourcade rose to the highest level in the following season when he won his first World Cup and two silver medals at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. This demonstrates that the French biathlon team knows how to maintain its performance at an outstanding level.
And the current season is following in the footsteps of that previous excellence. All the same, the loss of a champion like Martin Fourcade inevitably has an impact both in terms of results and, above all, in terms of how the discipline is perceived. Thanks to his personality and the ethical values he defended in his sport, Martin Fourcade brought the biathlon to the attention of the general public by offering an extremely attractive image of the sport. This is where the discipline could suffer from his absence. The French biathlon team already boasts a wealth of different faces and rich personalities. But, as we know, the media coverage of contemporary sport is ruthless: in order to exist, you have to win. But here, once again, the French biathlon team has potential.
On the shoulders of Quentin Fillon Maillet
Starting with Quentin Fillon Maillet: this 28-year-old biathlete is maturing as a sportsman and, above all, is assuming his role as a leader. But assuming this responsibility is one thing, making it a success will be another. Although, until now, Martin Fourcade shouldered most of the pressure weighing down on the French team, Quentin Fillon Maillet is eminently capable of doing the same. He already boasts the track record (two world championship titles) and puts up an extremely consistent performance as demonstrated by his two 3rd places in the World Cup rankings over the last two years, behind the two legendary athletes, Martin Fourcade and Johannes Boe. And there exist other excellent team members capable of winning victories. This is something they have already demonstrated: Simon Desthieux, Antonin Guigonnat, Emilien Jacquelin, and Fabien Claude who recently achieved a fine 2nd place in the pursuit event of the 2nd stage in the World Cup held in Kontiolahti.
Of course, their future will also depend on the physical shape and seasonal performance of Johannes Boe who remains the discipline’s great frontrunner now that his rival has finally given him a free hand. The first two stages of the World Cup in Kontiolahti in Finland have already shown that the Norwegians are in great shape. The French, on the other hand, found things a little more difficult and came in 8th place, a position that fails to do justice to their ranking.
If at certain times the women biathletes have demonstrated their leadership – we’re thinking of the Olympic medal won in the relay at the Albertville Games or the brilliant performances put up by Sandrine Bailly, Emmanuelle Claret, Marie Dorin, or Anaïs Bescon... – the women shone less brightly in the Poirée-Fourcade years. They possess a number of strengths with, in particular, Justine Braisaz and Julia Simon, Chloe Chevalier and Anaïs Chevallier Bouchet who reached the podium for the first time of the season. They demonstrated in Finland that they could be counted on by taking a brilliant 2nd place in the relay during the 2nd World Cup event.
This year’s season promises to be very special. The International Federation has decided to cancel several races (Ostersund, Grand-Bornand, Ruhpolding, Beijing) and to group the events together on a minimum of sites in order to limit travel. There consequently remain a host of questions at the start of this season, which will prove to be extremely exciting for this very reason!
Follow all the news of the French Biathlon Team on the Esprit Glisse page of the Caisse d'Epargne, a partner of the French Ski Federation.