ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Sortons du misérabilisme !
by Interview by Frédéric Sugnot
Translated Saturday 27 September 2008, by
2008 Paralympics. The curtain has finally come down on the Paralympic Games at Beijing. Gérard Masson, president of the French Handisport Federation* is torn between satisfaction and irritation.
Twelfth in the medals listing for the Paralympic Games (52 overall, including 12 golds), the French team left Beijing to return home. They were invited to a reception at the Elysée Palace but some had chosen not to attend on this occasion. This does not apply to Gérard Masson who has been the president of the French Handisport Federation since 2007 and is a tireless defender of his sportsmen and women.
Apart from the number of medals, what do you remember about these Paralympic Games?
Gérard Masson: the most important thing for me is to have led a closely-knit French team. This is not as easy as you think with 13 different sports and athletes who are not all entered in the same classification in the competition. And I also remember the quality of the Chinese welcome. They had made everything accessible for the wheelchairs, even outside the sports arenas, which was an agreeable surprise. There was easy access everywhere because they had supplied the means. For example, they hadn’t had any problems with placing ramps in front of shops. In short, they made it easy for us to use all the facilities, whereas at home these things are often very complicated.
So what about the sporting side?
Gérard Masson: There have been some wonderful images and some fine performances by well-prepared athletes. In the French team, on average, 61 athletes each picked up one of our 52 medals. That is to say, half the team has been on the podium. It is all very honourable, but unfortunately it is not what will be remembered. Because, what bothers me most, is how people will remember us. We must get rid of the negativity that engulfs us.
What do you mean?
Gérard Masson: We must stop labelling physically disabled athletes as ‘courageous’. We should judge them on their performances. As for me, for example, I can tell you that the swimmer David Smétanine (2 golds for 50m and 100m freestyle, 2 silvers for 50m backstroke and 200m freestyle - editor’s note) is at least as strong as Alain Bernard (French swimmer who won I gold, I silver and 1 bronze medal for his events in the Beijing Olympics - editor’s note). It is this which creates a feeling of dissatisfaction amongst the athletes. Those who did not want to attend the reception at the Elysée are not irresponsible. They just didn’t understand why Nicolas Sarkozy and Roselyne Bachelot didn’t bother to go to Beijing to support them as they did for the able-bodied team.
Should the solution - which is often discussed - be to run the Paralympic Games and the Olympic Games at the same time?
Gérard Masson: We don’t want to be the poor relation at the Olympic Games! We want to stand on our own. Anyway, to unite the Olympics and the Paralympics is technically not feasible. Those with physical disabilities must make progress in their own competitions and produce their own champions. I would very much like a young person in a rehabilitation centre to have our flag-carrier Assia El Hannouni as their idol rather than Zidane. Unfortunately this doesn’t yet happen.
Let’s return to the results which differ somewhat from those of Great Britain, second in the medal table with 102 medals, against France, only twelfth, with 52 medals
Gérard Masson: Great Britain chose to invest money in certain sports hoping that they would win medals. That isn’t our way of thinking. In France we’re not afraid to have electric wheelchair football (not a paralympic event - editor’s note) as our leading sport, with more than seventy teams on the move each weekend. Also, our federation manages 42 sports in total. In other words, it is sport for all. It’s a public service, it is our duty to give everyone a chance. Medals are not the only outcome. What we have to do now is to encourage those with disabilities to join clubs.
Exactly. But have you the means? Have the Paralympic Games enabled you to advance the cause of disability in sport?
Gérard Masson: We have received verbal promises from Bernard Laporte, the Secretary of State for Sport, and Valerie Letard, the Secretary of State for Solidarity, to support the jobs of sports instructors and coaches who are recruited during the campaigns. If 150 jobs are lost it will be a very hard blow…
* The French HANDISPORT federation dates from 1977 and is devoted to the promotion of sports and activities for people with physical disabilities and visual impairments (42 different sports and 520 clubs, 24,000 participants, 14,000 members). It works under the authority of the Ministry of Sport and organises some 50 training courses for its leaders and managers.