Martin Fourcade and the emotional rollercoaster of the PyeongChang 2018 Games
Martin Fourcade, the best biathlete in history along with Ole Einar Bjørndalen, the man with seven consecutive victories in the World Cup general ranking, 31 Crystal Globes and 25 World Championship medals, is also the French athlete with the most Olympic titles, with five victories. In PyeongChang, he went through it all: serving as a flag-bearer, winning three gold medals and suffering two huge disappointments. On the anniversary of his victory in the pursuit at PyeongChang, he answers our questions on olympic.org.
Your third Games, in PyeongChang, began with a disappointment, as you finished 8th in the sprint. How did you feel at that moment?
I had prepared extensively for that race. I had approached it in the best way possible. I think the fact that I’d been the flagbearer gave me two days beforehand to fully get into the Games and alleviate some of the pressure inherent in that event. It was an almost flawless race. There was just a small mistake in reading the wind in the prone shooting. I got in my first two shots, but I missed the last three because the wind changed and I didn’t notice while I was shooting. That was the only mistake that cost me the Olympic title I’d striven for so much, and which would have got these Games off to a perfect start. Strangely, it was the one of the most controlled races of my career but, because of one shot, I wasn’t the Olympic champion even though, with 8 shots out of 10, I would have won that day. In the evening, I was full of disbelief and bitterness, but I also took into account the fact that I was in a good position for the pursuit and that I was going to have to pull all the stops out.
And on 12 February, you won the pursuit in majestic fashion…
I had a real feeling of retaliation and satisfaction compared to the sprint, and pride as well, because winning an Olympic title is huge. I came to PyeongChang to win a gold medal, so that helped me reach my objective and dream of more. It was a fabulous feeling. The pride of having succeeded, four years after my first title, eight years after my first Olympic medal, to be there, to have stayed all those years at the top of my sport with all the sacrifices that entails.
When you win an Olympic title, all of that comes out. In that moment, it’s about controlling the race. One small mistake and a big lead at the finish which allowed me to enjoy the last lap. Beyond that, there’s also a whole set of feelings that well up. At the World Cup, when you’re used to winning, you have the tendency to savour that day’s race; but there, at the Olympic Games, I thought of all the efforts over my whole career, the tough events that I’d managed to overcome and the eight years dominating at the top of my sport.
You then missed two shots in the 20km individual event and you finished 5th. Were you angry about that?
That individual event was definitely the biggest disappointment of my career. It was a race offered to me on a plate, or that I offered to myself on a plate. I just had to finish the job. It’s strange, but I would have won if I had knocked down at least one of the two targets, like in almost 100 per cent of the other races. But that day, it was the Olympic Games. It wasn’t the pressure, it was the tiredness caused by all that I’d been through beforehand, the disappointment in the sprint, the huge emotional lift of the pursuit. I arrived at this individual event really tired. I’d had problems sleeping. It was a lack of freshness that cost me those two last shots. I wasn’t able to react properly when I fired them. Afterwards, I was really angry of course, but at the same time I was proud of what I’d done up to then. Like in the sprint, it takes one shot to turn a frustrating race into Olympic victory!
Did you regard your win in the mass start against Simon Schempp as a rematch of the same photo-finish ending at Sochi 2014, in which Emil Hegle Svendsen beat you?
That race meant a lot to me emotionally – it was my first Olympic medal, my first international podium in Vancouver in 2010 – reverse symmetry compared to the Sochi Games. I saw it happening again in my head, and said to myself: “No, it’s not possible. I can’t get the silver again.” Three times I’ve fought for victory in this event at the Games, and there hasn’t been much in it. It’s a race that I particularly like, and I thought it might still elude me. That’s why I hit my poles in anger in the finish area. I didn’t know if it was he or I who had won. There wasn’t much more of a gap in my favour than there had been against me four years earlier. About 10 centimetres. It was a thrilling finish; we didn’t know who the winner was until the finish line. That’s the magic of the biathlon. If you didn’t like biathlon that evening, move on to something else, you just don’t like the sport. I can understand it, but I don’t think you’ll ever like it.
Your third title in PyeongChang came at the end of the mixed event in which you were the last relay member of the French team – a collective victory at last?
It was the first Olympic relay medal of my career. It’s an event that often provides opportunities when you have a strong team like the French one. It was my fifth Olympic relay. In the first four, we didn’t know how to work together. So it is a really proud moment in my career to have helped the group with whom I train throughout the year to win the greatest medal. It’s a shared feeling, very different from what I had in the individual events, really enjoyable given the history, and the day when I look back on my career, that’ll be a special moment from my three Games. They’ve given me an awful lot, I’ve been able to rise to the challenge three times.
In PyeongChang, there were some things that I couldn’t deal with – the tiredness and the demands cost me much more than usual, and I think I could have had two more Olympic titles. That may sound boastful. If I had been able to manage the event, things would have been different. We can always think of how to redo things differently, but I really have this feeling of having a strong Olympic history with five titles and seven medals. I also know that if I had managed some aspects differently, there could have been many more. I don’t have any regrets, it’s just an observation and something I will try to give to the generations of athletes who come after me. I was fortunate to be able to compete for five Olympic titles, and the times I missed out are incidental; but when you’re lucky enough to win an Olympic medal in your career, the little details are anything but incidental.
You have become the most decorated French Olympic athlete. Is that important to you?
It was never my intention. But then it would be a lie to say that it’s not a great honour. I’m very proud to be compared to Jean-Claude Killy, Tony Estanguet and all these athletes who have been important to me and who are still popular figures in French sport today. But it’s not something I set out to do.
What is your best memory of the Games?
I have several. Discovering the Olympic world in Vancouver in 2010. Something which meant a great deal to me. My first Games, with my brother Simon, my first Olympic medal. Then, there was my first win in Sochi in the pursuit. I had waited four years. I’d dominated my sport, and it was the last reward left to win in biathlon. And I had to wait before going to get it. In PyeongChang, it was a totally different adventure, more thought out. I was the flagbearer for the French delegation; I had to defend my Olympic titles and try to win others; I had to live up to my status as the world no. 1. So a lot of great memories.
And the worst?
The sprint in Vancouver, because it was the first big disappointment in my career. It was hugely frustrating to know that the weather dashed my chances, because the weather changed during the race, and that went against me. Afterwards, there was the sprint in Sochi where I was a bit stunned. And of course the sprint and individual event in PyeongChang. Those are painful memories, but they also helped me to go even further. Vancouver helped me massively to become the best biathlete in the world. Sochi and PyeongChang helped me to react the next day and go out and get these Olympic titles. An Olympic title is never insignificant.
How do you rate the organisation and general atmosphere in PyeongChang ?
The organisation was excellent. The atmosphere was very good. We had the misfortune to have to deal with the cold. When it was -20 or -25 degrees, it’s less pleasant than when it’s around 0°!
I left those Games with excellent memories. I was very satisfied with my experience and being able to share it in the big Olympic Village, with all the mountain discipline athletes, as was the case in Vancouver, but not in Sochi. For me that was a superb experience.
Now you are the Chair of the Athletes’ Commission of the Paris 2024 Organising Committee. How do you see your role?
It’s about making sure that my Olympic experiences can be used for the benefit of those who will come and be lucky enough to discover this world. I was talking earlier about the little details, and, well, it’s also about trying to improve these for the world’s athletes, particularly from a sporting point of view, as it is an incredible time in an athlete’s career. Everything has to be put in place to provide the athletes with the best conditions possible, but also so that they also enjoy a human and cultural experience that makes a mark on their life. That was the case for me at my three Games. I want everything to be perfect at Paris 2024, and for everything to be thought out for the well-being and experience of the athletes.
What do you think about competing in your fourth Games in Beijing in 2022?
I am committed for two years – the season underway and the next one. I will assess how it’s going after that to see if I have the energy to go to Beijing with as much effort and enjoyment that I’ve felt during my 13-year international career, between my first World Cup race and last year. If I feel like that, I’ll go to Beijing. And if that drive isn’t as high as in the past, I’ll use it to serve future generations and the Olympic Games to come. I don’t feel I have the mind of a coach, but on the other hand I think it would be a shame for my experience and the skills I’ve acquired not to have a new lease of life!