Five hundred and fifty in Rio, five hundred and twenty-six in Tokyo, five hundred and two in Paris… An engineer by training, senior manager at EDF in Switzerland and president of the International Rowing Federation, Jean-Christophe Rolland, 53 years old, has the all eyes on the number of rowers selected for the Olympics. With the fear of going below the 500 mark in Los Angeles, in 2028, edition of the Games for which the boss of world rowing made a major concession: accepting a pool 1,500 m long, instead of the 2,000 m usual, and six water lines instead of eight.
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“That was where we found ourselves 300 km from Los Angeles on a lake where no one would come to see us”, explains the native of Condrieu (Rhône), who has lived with the oars in hand since the age of 12. The former gold medalist at the Sydney Games (1) – who continues to train every day, including in his Tokyo hotel before heading to the edge of the basin – also knows that his discipline, one of the most greedy in number of athletes, is one of the most threatened by the evolution of Olympism. Which always wants more sports to make room for disciplines more appealing to young people, and always fewer selected to lower costs (10,900 in Tokyo, 10,500 in Paris, a figure that should no longer go down) .
“The games must not become a fashionable sports parade”
Difficult equation that the engineer tries to solve every day under his two hats, that of president of the Rowing Federation and that of member of the International Olympic Committee. Unlike his two French colleagues, Guy Drut and Tony Estanguet, the first elected by virtue of his personal and political career, the second as a member of the Athletes’ Commission, Jean-Christophe Rolland sits in the college called “des federations ”. “The day I no longer chair rowing, I leave the IOC”, says this competitor, who says he has no career plan and simply got involved in international bodies when he was an athlete to defend the interests of his colleagues.
He is now responsible for defending a sport as complete as it is unspectacular. “It is normal that the Games adapt to modernity, but they must not become a fashionable sports parade”, worries Jean-Christophe Rolland.
“We represent the fundamentals of sport”
“It’s true, rowing is not fun, training is hard, especially in winter, but we represent the fundamentals of the sport, physical strength, technique and mind. The Games must continue to give visibility every four years to these disciplines that are not often seen on television. “
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And who do not bring much to their elite practitioners, almost all amateurs or in a dual project sport and studies (or arranged employment). “A few days before my gold medal in Sydney, I was still working in my power station in the Bugey, and that’s fine, he recounts. Some athletes earn a lot of money, which is good for them, but the values of rowing are different and must be preserved. “