Sailing: “Our objective: to be potential medal-winners in every event at the Olympic Games Paris 2024”

Thursday, 6 july 2023

Philippe Mourniac, the director of the French National Teams, is responsible for steering French Olympic sailing to its next destination: the Olympic Games Paris 2024! In this interview, he draws on his extensive experience in the world of sailing to take stock of the potential and ambitions of the French sailing team.

The sailing events of the Olympic Games Paris 2024 will be held in the bay of Marseilles on an exceptional stretch of water, well known to French regatta sailors.  

The Sailing Test Event of Paris 2024 will be held in Marseilles from July 7 to 16. What does this event mean for the French team? 

It’ll be the only real rehearsal for the Olympic Games with the same format and one boat per nation per event. So, for us, it’s the year’s major objective. And not just as observers. We want to arrive at the Olympic Games with the potential of winning ten medals, i.e. one in each of the events. 

How do you calculate ‘medal potential’? 

If you really want to be a potential Olympic medal-winner, you need – in our opinion – to have already won a medal in the World Championships or the European Open Championships in the three years prior to the Games.  

This is currently true for the French team in six of the ten series chosen for Paris 2024. So there are four series where we’re still working towards our objective. In the men’s 49er, we’ve achieved podium finishes and World Cup victories, and in the Nacra 17 (mixed series), we took 5th and 6th places, with certain nations doubling up ahead of us… Which means we’re almost there. In ILCA 6 (single-handed dinghy), we’ve also reached World Cup podiums, and finally in FX (women’s 49er), we still have to catch up with the best but our team includes a number of extremely promising athletes. They now need to become established crews, and they’re almost there. By the end of the year, we should have won some medals.  

That’s where our teams stand at the moment. Everyone put in a lot of work in the autumn of last year and this past winter. In Palma (Mallorca) and Hyères on the Mediterranean coast, we saw the French team progress in some very high-level events. We were the No.2 nation in Palma behind the English and we came in first in Hyères. We’re right on schedule… We’ll see how we do at the Test Event in Marseilles in early July, and we’ll take stock of the situation afterwards.  

So you’ll be going to the Olympic Games Paris 2024 next year with real medal-winning potential in each of the Olympic events… an extremely rare occurrence… 

That’s the highly ambitious goal I fixed for all our staff and athletes… I don’t know if we’ll achieve it… There are always one or two surprises at the Olympics. But the aim is to have this medal-winning potential across the board. 

Among your athletes, Charline Picon has a special status. What she’s trying to achieve is something quite exceptional… 

Indeed, it’s rare to do what she has done and win an Olympic medal in two Olympiads and, in the case of sailing, the number of people who’ve done it can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand… Charline’s switch from windsurfing to a sailing in a boat, from a solo discipline to a crewed event, is revolutionary in itself… A double Olympic medallist who changes series and – let’s indulge ourselves and imagine that things go well – who wins a 3rd Olympic medal in another series… it becomes quite a unique achievement! 

Can you tell us what is special about the Mediterranean waters of Marseilles, chosen to host the Olympic sailing events?  

The harbor of Marseilles is a magnificent stretch of water, thanks to its setting first of all: the rocky coast, the calanques on one side, the topography…. It is, after all, the 2nd largest sea-oriented city in France. And there are, of course, the islands lying offshore! The wind conditions are extremely varied with two main systems, a westerly sector and an easterly sector, along with a 3rd factor – the thermal breeze – that complicates things still further… So it’s an extremely varied stretch of water where we can have a succession of days with widely differing conditions, leading to completely different sea states, wind strengths, and sky colors.   

What sailing skills does all this require?  

It’s a stretch of water requiring considerable technical skills… You have to know how to move your boat forward on this type of water. There’s a small, typically Mediterranean chop which can be combined with a larger swell and, depending on the ‘rounds’ (course areas) of the different series, include the presence of surf. In short, it’s anything but easy.  

After that, it’s also an extremely tactical stretch of water, as we’re surrounded by land that rises high, with the Frioul Islands opposite and the city of Marseilles stretching out behind, all of which disturbs the wind. On a single day, the sailors competing in the different heats on the course won’t necessarily experience the same conditions… So it’s going to be extremely challenging in all respects. As a result, in order to win medals in Marseilles, the contestants will have to be hyper versatile and extremely well-rounded sailors…  

So the medalists will be great regatta sailors? 

Yes, Olympic medalists are always great champions. And in Marseilles, they’ll be extremely well-rounded….  

So you’re preparing multi-skilled athletes? 

Generally speaking, in sailing, a competitor’s first quality is adaptability… But this is all the more true in this particular venue, and one of the points we’ll be trying to develop is versatility. The event is long, lasting several days with several rounds and what can be changeable weather. For example, we could have two or three days with a mistral wind followed by a return of easterly winds and, finally, the settling in of thermal breezes…  

Will you be able to work on this stretch of water more than others?  

As soon as the Olympic site is designated, it becomes a training area for all the competing nations. Teams drop off equipment and come as often as they can… For us, even before talking about Paris 2024, all our athletes had already been to Marseilles. It’s one of the venues where we race the most. We have athletes who trained in Optimist class sailing dinghies in Marseilles…  

We want to make Marseilles the French team’s home… In May and June, right up to the Test Event in July, we’ll be sailing across the bay in all directions to hone our technical skills and get to grips with all the different facets of this stretch of water.  

You have a scientific background, as is often the case in the world of sailing. How do you explain this scientific frame of mind among sailing specialists? 

It’s true, I have a scientific background… Sailing is a mature sport compared to other disciplines; it’s one where an athlete can grow older yet continue to improve. We have athletes on the French team who are well into their thirties. A considerable number of our sailing athletes have studied to a high level and we do, it’s true, have a high proportion of people who’ve pursued scientific studies. If you look at the French team, we have quite a few members who have completed master’s degrees in math or physics at university, and we have more than a few athletes from engineering schools… In the youth category, as soon as the students obtain the status of top-level sportsmen and women, we have special agreements with universities and engineering schools such as INSA Lyon, Toulouse or Rennes…  

How does your extensive experience in the America’s Cup help you in your current role? 

The first thing related to the America’s Cup is the professional aspect of the project… In terms of project management, it’s very instructive. I belong to the generation of Olympic sailors who were lucky enough to experience the challenges of the America’s Cup… It also gives me different insight into the range of possibilities for working on improved performance. These are projects where money isn’t an obstacle. If you think a particular approach is important for better performance, you can explore it and even develop it. Then, in the world of the America’s Cup, you have that incredible professionalism with everything that word implies in terms of rigor, planning… It gives you a framework… 

So you’re more ruthless? 

Ruthlessness is inherent in high-level sport. There are rules to respect, a code of conduct to obey. The higher up you go, the less room there is for cronyism. If we take the example of the Olympic Games: in certain series, you have an incredible number of potential competitors but only one will go on to the Games, so it’s already ruthless because 5 or 6 athletes will suffer a real trauma…  

And the same thing will happen again in the Olympics themselves: only three boats will win medals and there will only be one Olympic champion. May the best contestant win!  

When I talk to the athletes, I know what they’re going through. In high-level sport, no one’s going to do you any favors; it’s up to you to go all out for the medal. You’ll face nothing but competitors all the way, first of all in France, then against the rest of the world, and finally at the Olympic Games. 

You’ve also had to deal with the appearance of new disciplines on the Olympic program… like kiteboarding? 

The kiteboarding community asked the Olympic world what it means to compete in the Olympic Games… But we shouldn’t forget that these athletes were world champions before being included on the Olympic program… We also learn a lot from what these disciplines have already achieved before… We quite rapidly became a single, united Olympic family…  

In your job, you have to coach the coaches. Can you explain how you go about this? 

When it comes to the job of Director of the French Teams, there are many different ways of doing things. I’m a hands-on kind of person above all, a former athlete, a former coach; what I enjoy is being out in the field… So I try to be as accessible as possible to the coaches and athletes. But I don’t interfere. I try to listen to everyone, to take time and think about things with the coaches… I don’t intrude on the different activities of each series but everyone knows that I’m there and available should they need me. 

In the French team, there’s a wide variety of different athletes, different boats, different generations. How, in the light of this diversity, do you generate a common spirit?  

It’s a real challenge. One of our goals is to have medal-winning potential in all 10 series, but I also sincerely believe that it’s very important to develop a team spirit for this project. When we get to Paris 2024 with our 14 athletes, we have to create a squad, we have to work really hard for ourselves but also for our other teammates. This desire to build a team is complex because sailing is first and foremost an individual sport. There exists a degree of competition between us… But one of my objectives is to make it clear to everyone that, even if in the end the medal will hang around just one person’s neck, it will be won beforehand by everyone working together…  

It’s an incredible opportunity to have such a large group of athletes because, first of all, it gives you a wide choice for the final selection and also, when you have 4 of the world’s top 10 in a series, it means we can organize some very (very) high-level training sessions with each other!   

It also makes the selected sailors feel responsible for their other teammates left behind… 

Once the selection is made, we create a bubble around the selected athlete… The athlete is principally going after the medal for him- or herself but they also have a sense of responsibility towards their partners-cum-adversaries. This is the essential complexity of our sport… The individual athlete can tap the real strength possessed by the community… It’s an important area for reflection, for choosing the right people…  

Finally, when you were a child growing up in Sainte Maxime on the coast between Marseilles and Nice, did you ever think you’d find yourself at the Olympic Games just 150km from home? 

When I sailed my Optimist dinghy off the coast of Sainte Maxime, I could already see myself racing in the Olympic Games… In my head, I was competing in one of the Olympic heats… or in the America’s Cup!  

And then, the fact of having the Olympic Games in your own country is an inspiration for many people… When we were in Tokyo, we knew that the next Games would be in Paris, but I wasn’t thinking at all about the Paris Olympics. It was when we left Tokyo and landed in Paris that I realized that we were landing for the first time on the tarmac of the next country to host the Olympic Games… I have the impression that this feeling was shared by a great many people when we came back from Tokyo… The Olympic Games at home, it’s once in a hundred years!  

News: The Test Event in Marseilles ended with the French Sailing Team achieving a set of outstanding results: a total of 5 medals, including 4 gold and 1 silver! To learn more, click HERE.