The French team head to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games with one thing on their minds: put on a good show in readiness for their home Games in three years’ time.
With a total of 137 athletes competing in all but three sports – and represented in all individual events – France want to make a strong statement across the programme.
“France can aim for medals in most of the 19 sports,” Jean Minier, Chef de Mission, said. “It is important, for our team, to improve the number of medals to set up a positive dynamic for the next three years.
“Furthermore, we are satisfied to have, among us, many young athletes who will gain experience at Tokyo in view of Paris 2024.”
One of those youngsters is Para rower Erica Sauzeau. Positioned as one of the most promising prospects for Tokyo 2020, and even more so for Paris 2024, Sauzeau was talent-spotted through the ‘La Relève’ (Future Generation) programme launched in 2019 by the French Paralympic Committee.
In April this year, Sauzaeu was part of the silver medal winning PRX Mix4+ team at the European Championships.
"I feel good about the approach of the Games, no pressure or stress at the moment, I am focused on working with the team,” Sauzeau said. “The work has intensified in the last few months, we have worked a lot because it is a new crew composition. We are two new women in the 4+ mixed PR3.
“The progress is constant and it's quite exhilarating because I know we can still improve.”
The Frenchwoman hopes for more success at Tokyo 2020, including a podium finish, but she has one eye on the longer term:
“Now it's true that I'm expecting something else for Paris 2024, goodbye to the COVID and make way for the festivities. The magic of the Games that I have often heard about... the excitement of the public, the exchanges with the other athletes! And above all, it's at home next. The dimension will inevitably be tenfold.
“Representing France at the Games is a real honour and a great pride. I dream of making our beautiful Marseillaise ring out.”
Naturally, as one of the most prolific countries at the Paralympics, France will also look to the more experienced members of their team in Japan.
Judoka Sandrine Martinet will go for gold in the women’s up to 48kg, having claimed the title at Rio 2016 in the up to 52kg. Since making the switch, Martinet has secured bronze at the World Championships in 2018 and the European title in 2019.
"I feel good about the approach of the Games, the sensations are good, I want to have fun on the tatami,” Martinet said. “My preparation went well despite the health situation - we were able to adapt.
“My objective for Tokyo is to win a second title in a different category. It is obviously very important for me to win gold, but also for my family, especially my children, to give meaning to the sacrifices we had to make. And this medal also allows me to thank all the people who supported me and helped me on and off the tatamis to obtain it.”
Judoka Sandrine Martinet Ⓒ Getty Images
Judo at Tokyo 2020 will have extra special significance for the athletes. Judo was born in Japan and competition will be held at the iconic martial arts venue, the Nippon Budokan.
“For judokas, the Tokyo Games in the land of judo have a very special flavour, winning there is a plus and for us French a springboard for the Paris Games in three years,” Martinet continued.
“I can also add that, for me, these Games are also very special because I have the honour and pride of being the flag bearer of the French delegation with [wheelchair tennis player] Stéphane Houdet.
“For us French, the Games are a huge opportunity to publicise our Movement.”
It is in that spirit that Marie Amelie Le Fur will take to track as not only the returning champion in the women’s 400m and long jump T44, but also as President as the French Paralympic Committee.
In table tennis, Rio 2016 Paralympic champions Fabien Lamirault and Stéphane Molliens return and will be joined by other Paralympic medallists Maxime Thomas, Florian Merrien and Thu Kamkasomphou.
The men’s epee and foil teams will go for gold in the wheelchair fencing with the backdrop of a historic Paralympic record. Eight golds have so far gone to France in the epee whilst the foilists have claimed four.
Joint flag-bearer Houdet is the former winner of Roland Garros with partner Nicolas Peifer in the men’s doubles, as well as the defending Paralympic champions from Rio 2016. In the singles, Houdet has twice taken the Roland Garros crown as well as victory at the US Open.
Stephane Houdet and Nicolas Peifer Ⓒ OIS Photos
Overall at Rio 2016, France won at least one medal in 12 out of the 17 sports they entered equalling 28 altogether. With a target of at least 35 medals for Tokyo 2020, and the recent unification with the Olympic team, Martinet believes this sends a clear message to the public:
“In France, thanks to the Games, we have created a unified team between the Olympic and Paralympic teams. [This was] In order to create even greater cohesion around the athletes for the Games in Paris and to inspire society, in terms of equality and inclusion, and that we are above all athletes motivated by a single objective: performance.”