A winner of three Olympic gold medals during a long and distinguished career in canoe slalom, France’s Tony Estanguet was determined to give something back to sport once his career was over. Now a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission and Paris 2024 President, he explains why listening to athletes can benefit the whole of sport.

  • Tony Estanguet won three Olympic gold medals in men’s canoe slalom
  • He has successfully championed the athletes’ voice within organisations like the IOC, WADA and the ICF
  • As Paris 2024 President, Tony is an outstanding example of a former athlete in a major sports leadership role

The Olympic Games changed my life. When I was a child watching on TV, I was taken in by the atmosphere. Then my dream came true when I became an Olympian and won three gold medals.

Beijing 2008 was my third Games. I was 30 years old at the time, and I began asking myself whether I should continue as an athlete, or whether I should stop. I started to wonder what my future in the Olympic family would look like.

I couldn’t imagine completely disappearing – I really wanted to keep the link because it was my passion in life. At that moment, I decided to become an athlete representative because for me, athletes are the heart of the Games and the Olympic family.

There is a community of athletes worldwide, and I really want to push to make sure they remain at the heart of the Games.

From canoeing to campaigning
I felt the athletes’ situation could be improved by building a stronger link with the International Federations (IFs) and the National Olympic Committees (NOCs). It was also a way for me to engage in something else apart from competing.

After Beijing, I decided to become a representative within the International Canoe Federation (ICF). I loved this role because I could share my experience and give my opinion on the decisions that could improve the situation for athletes. That really benefited the sport and my own career too.

I then decided to try to become a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission (AC), and I was elected during London 2012. It was fantastic to get on the Commission because it’s a place where you can have a positive impact on athletes’ careers and help better protect athletes. I’m still a member of the Commission, and I liaise with the athletes’ commissions of IFs and NOCs. There is a community of athletes worldwide, and I really want to push to make sure they remain at the heart of the Games.

Making a difference
When I retired from competition after London 2012, I decided to put all my energy into this new challenge on the IOC AC and find a place within sport administration to make sure that my role and my experience would benefit athletes.

Through the IOC Athletes’ Commission Strategy, we developed a comprehensive framework to better represent athletes’ interests and make their voices heard. This framework enabled us to better coordinate our actions and launch a series of ambitious projects like the Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities Declaration and the Athlete365 platform. Our collaboration with Olympic Solidarity enabled us to get the funding for these programmes.

Between now and the end of my term on the IOC AC, I will continue implementing the Athletes’ Declaration and have it ratified by as many sports organisations as possible. I also plan to strengthen the connection between the IOC AC (as well as the global network of ACs) and the Organising Committees for the Olympic Games (OCOG) ACs to give a greater role to athletes in the preparation of the Olympic Games.

The forthcoming 2019 International Athletes’ Forum allows us to take advantage of this unique gathering to collect feedback from both athletes and ACs. We can find out what their needs are, and how we can accompany them in their daily work. It also gives us the chance to raise awareness about the IOC AC’s activities and provide other ACs with relevant material to empower its members and enable them to do their job better. There will also be a specific focus on the Athletes’ Declaration

Championing the athletes’ cause
I’ve also been involved with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as an athlete’s representative, and I’ve worked with the Olympic Solidarity Commission to make sure that athletes worldwide receive grants to be able to train for and reach the Olympic Games.

I loved this mandate because it’s a great way to make an impact on the leaders within sport administration, who have to make decisions on the future of sport. I saw it as another competition. I really want to become the best I can be, as I was trying to do when I was an athlete.

It’s hard work involving a lot of time travelling around the world, meeting people to understand what they’re about, finding solutions to give them a better understanding of what is at stake and making sure that athletes are in a better situation in the future than they are today.

I have learned a lot from the sport administration leaders, and I progressively became involved in the successful Paris 2024 Olympic bid. It was fantastic to have the opportunity to put athletes at the centre of an Olympic bid and to demonstrate that organising the Games can be possible if athletes are closely involved with the organising committee.

Giving back to canoeing
Today, I’m fully dedicated to my new mission of being active in sport administration and defending the interests of athletes. But even though I retired from competition, I really wanted to keep the link with my sport. This is still my second family in the sense that I had some great moments thanks to canoeing, and I tried to imagine how I could give back to my sport after my career was over.

I decided against coaching because we already have very good coaches in the sport, and I wasn’t sure I would be a good coach. Instead, I chose to organise and deliver canoeing events. I chaired the organising committee of the2017 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships in France, and that was a great experience for me.

Firstly, it was a big responsibility in terms of leading a team and working together to see how we could improve the standard of canoeing events at an international level. That was fantastic for me as I had to try to put in place everything I had learned in my career: how to deal with the media, how to best showcase the performances of the athletes, how to ensure a better experience for the spectators in the stadium.

It was great to get the opportunity to deliver an event I would have loved to have competed in as an athlete. That was my only objective, and I was very satisfied with the result. It was a great event. I received a lot of great feedback, and personally, I felt proud to have been involved in the delivery of such an important event for canoeing.

Learning to listen
To be effective as an athlete representative, you have to understand the environment. This is not easy. I remember when I first became an athlete representative for the ICF, sitting at the board level. This is not easy because you are surrounded by people who represent continents and different departments within the federation – so there is a mix of politics as well as specific problems related to geographic situations. What I tried to do was to listen carefully and make sure I understood what was at stake for the different people around the table.

You can’t really push your message if nobody is ready to receive it. It’s a strategy; like in sport, you have to be clear on what your goal is, and also how you will be able to reach it. The way to do it is to engage with people, get to know them better around the table and make sure they are ready to listen to you and to understand.

But first you also have to listen to them, and there is a strategy to be implemented to make sure the athlete’s voice will be heard. There’s a space in the Olympic Movement to listen to athletes. I’m convinced that we can improve the situation because if you engage with people, if they can trust you, it’s a question of confidence, and then a relationship can be built.

You have to be interested in the interests of the collective group before pushing for the athletes’ interests. If you manage this combination, you will be able to push for your ideas, and they will be well-received.

Tony and the other members of the IOC Athletes’ Commission will be hosting more than 300 athlete representatives at the 2019 International Athletes’ Forum, taking place on 13-15 April in Lausanne. To find out more about the Forum and how you can join the discussion, click here.