May 22, 2022

from “customs officer sport” to TV star, how French biathlon found its target

For you, biathlon is a sport that is practiced on skis, with a rifle in the back, a jumpsuit with a customs sticker and a neon ad for cheese, and at the end, a Frenchman raising his arms on the finish line, all filmed in mondovision? This is partly correct, but we come a long way. A quick look back, on the occasion of the start of the biathlon events at the Beijing Winter Olympics, Saturday February 5, where the blue squad led this year by Emilien Jacquelin and Anaïs Chevalier-Boucher feeds golden ambitions, with the hope of doing as well as in 2014 (4 medals) or 2018 (5).

If the biathlon has been tested at the Olympic Games since those of Chamonix in 1924, under the name of “military skiing”, it was in the 1960s that it obtained its napkin ring at the Olympic table. To give you an idea of ​​the misery, the discipline was then overseen by the Modern Pentathlon Federation. The French team at the Squaw Valley Games was made up at the time… of the worst cross-country skiers. They discover their weapons a few days before the event. “Choosing biathlon rather than cross-country skiing was a downgrade”, smiles Yvon Mougel, a pioneer of the discipline in France in the 1970s. “We were shooting with weapons of war, the targets were 150 m away [soit trois fois plus loin qu’aujourd’hui]. I’ve already left a brow bone with the recoil of the rifle. In 1972, the special envoy of the World at the Olympics writes that biathlon “does not seem to us to have to appear (…) within a plethoric Olympic program”.

Who says niche sport says system D, says Yvon Mougel. The workout: “I was setting up cardboard targets in a quiet place.” Arms : “We ended up recovering Soviet equipment, Vostoks. We tampered with the butts so that they were lighter. And theCartridges were horribly expensive. We drew 20 per session, maximum. Les sponsors : “I had to pass the customs officer competition, we had no choice to be part of the France team.” Finally, the competitions: “For the French championship in Les Saisies (Savoie) in 1984, the resort management did not want us to disturb the tourists. We had to go to a place accessible only by ski, 2 km from the ski area. However, I had just finished fourth in the Sarajevo Games and had my picture featured in one of ‘The Magazine Team’.”

The Albertville Games of 1992, scene of the triumph of the women’s blue relay, could have gradually installed biathlon in the landscape. Corn “I had to do three TVs after my gold medal, and I went back to my mountains to train in a parking lot in the summer”, says Corinne Niogret, a figure in the discipline during this decade.

“It was always in Germany that I was recognized in the street, never in France.”

Corinne Niogret

at franceinfo

The recognition of sponsors will also take time to arrive, says Yves Perret, author of the book The Great Hours of Nordic Skiing in France (ed. The Book Lovers). “In 1994, when the women’s relay won a bronze medal at the Lillehammer Games, the torchbearers received a check for 125 francs (about 20 euros) each, in an envelope, from their pole supplier. purely and simply returned.”

The biathlon of the 1990s still smells very strongly of mothballs. “I remember the 1993 world championship in Borovets, Bulgaria, with deplorable coverage, says Marc Mingoia, voice of biathlon on Eurosport for twenty years. Two cameras, all in all. We saw the teams shooting, going skiing in the forest and for 10 minutes, we had nothing in the image.” At the time, few media send journalists to cover these competitions. “We were three, account Marc Mingoia. Me,L’Equipe’ and ‘Le Dauphiné Liberated’.” Hence the fact that biathlon is the subject of completely crazy advertisements playing on the ignorance of the public, like this spot from the cable channel 13e Rue which ends in a general shooting…

The arrival in the foreground of Raphaël Poirée, at the end of the 1990s, still did not unlock the popularity of the discipline in France. His character doesn’t necessarily help. “On the wall of a bar in Pokljuka in Slovenia, a mecca for biathlon, there are all the caricatured stars with a big smile, describes Marc Mingoia. All, except one: Poirée who pulls the face. On the other hand, the professionalism of the Isérois pushes the French biathlon into another dimension. It was he who was on the run after the fiasco of the Nagano Olympics in Japan in 1998. The Norwegian technicians had spent a year on site to analyze the snow in its smallest crystals, when the French had played it at the ‘economy. For the last time.

From then on, the status of biathletes was dusted off. End of the obligation to pass the customs examination, up to the status of contract worker. Even today, five of the 35 athletes supported by customs are biathletes. “I was very happy to receive these 1,500 euros per month to practice my sport, smiles Jean-Guillaume Béatrix, who hung up the rifle in 2018. I found that incredible. I felt like I was living very well. It is thanks to this status that I was able to buy an apartment. I never needed to look for a job to be financially independent.”

“We continue to maintain the legend that biathlon is a customs sport”, smiles François Simond, the boss of the French customs team. In particular thanks to the customs tournament, annual high mass, at the beginning of March, which begins with a parade in uniform. Nevertheless, this image of Epinal of heroic times tends to disappear. “Customs sport? It’s been five or six since I last heard it”, laughs the ex-biathlete Alexis Bœuf, now a consultant on the L’Equipe channel, broadcaster of the World Cup.

If today, this channel exceeds one million enthusiasts throughout the winter by broadcasting the races in clear, this success is the culmination of a process of two decades. “I was elected to the IBU Athletes’ Commission [la fédération internationale de biathlon] to enhance the show”, says Hervé Flandin, Olympic medalist in 1994 before hanging up three years later. “Long before tennis or F1, we took into account the comments of the broadcasters to improve the show. No more endless walks in the forest, time penalties that must be deducted on arrival, and time trial tunnels that make the race incomprehensible to ordinary mortals. “Shorter races, one hour, including the podium, with direct confrontations and the winner who is often the one who crosses the finish line first.”

Biathlon: Unstoppable Fourcade

Add to this, during the 2010 decade, the explosion of a Martin Fourcade far more gifted in communication than his predecessors, and the arrival of World Cup events in France, in Le Grand-Bornand.. Here is the biathlon finally installed in the landscape. Martin Fourcade, five-time Olympic champion, finds himself propelled to the rank of favorite sportsman of the French in 2020, ahead of Kylian Mbappé. “Between the time I started and the time I stopped, my sport changed status, illustrates Jean-Guillaume Béatrix. We have created a position of press officer dedicated to biathlon at the ski federation. It was all new to us.”

The rise of biathlon is not limited to the snowy peaks. If the Montesson club, in the Yvelines, created in the 1990s, is a pioneer, other more recent initiatives have emerged. In Brittany, Maël Croyal watches over the club of Surzur, a Morbihan town of 4,500 inhabitants. “We had to refuse people this year”, smiles the one who takes his flock to roller ski and shoot with laser rifles, more general public than .22 Long Rifle.

“I receive calls from parents who tell me that their son plays Martin Fourcade every weekend in their garden.”

Mael Croyal

at franceinfo

Among the curious eager to develop biathlon near their home, Clémentine Clerc, PE teacher in Lambersart, near Lille, who created her biathlon section for her 5th graders. “It is possible to practice it in a sports hall for 28 students in winter, and without snow, smiles this native of Cambrai. We share the rifles, we do 30 seconds of abs to replace the penalty laps.” Main feat of arms of this ch’tie biathlon section, a chance meeting with Martin Fourcade during a school trip to Villard-de-Lans (Isère), who dedicated an improvised class photo to each one. “My former students still tell me about it.”

It remains to shake up mentalities at the highest level, on the political side. Not always an easy task, testifies Axel Martin-Garrin, director of the Nœux-les-Mines ski club (Pas-de-Calais), which also offers a biathlon section. “There are only former footballers in the bodies to which we ask for a subsidy! The first year, I obtained 5,000 euros for my 100 licensees, when the football club of the city, 300 players, scratched 35,000! Football vampirizes everything here…”

On the sporting side, biathlon has understood the interest of getting out of its snowpack. “When we wanted to set up shooting training for our supervisors, the federation sent us Franck Badiou [ancien tireur professionnel, devenu coach des équipes de France de biathlon]. Just that !, exclaims Maël Croyal. He stayed a weekend in Vannes to train us.” Sign of the change in this sport, the thinking heads of the infrastructures are now thinking of shooting ranges adapted to pros and neophytes. “There is almost a conflict of use, underlines Hervé Flandin, who became a consultant for the firm Abest Ingénierie, which designed the launch pad for the Beijing Olympics, among others. The goal, in the long term, is to install stadiums in most major cities, including in the plain, so that we can practice it in all seasons.

For many experts, a failure at the Beijing Games, or even a tricolor generation gap in the medium term, will not affect this growing passion. Like Alexis Bœuf, consultant on the L’Equipe channel: “Before, people watched Martin Fourcade. Now they watch biathlon!”