French skating is far from being washed-out !
Right after the Pairs short program of the European Championships in Ostrava, Mr Didier Gailhaguet, Président of the Fédération Française des Sports de Glace was kind enough to answer our questions, something we are deeply thankful for.
Skate Info Glace : Good evening Mr Gailhaguet, thank you for sparing some time to meet up with us right after Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès medalled. In your eye, can this bronze medal be valued as gold ?
Didier Gailhaguet : Yes, I am satisfied with their beautiful performance tonight, as I am of Laurine Lecavelier's yesterday. Figure skating is a sport where you need to convince before winning, and to convince not only once. Tonight, in the audience's mind, there are two winners. I think that the French indisputably deserved to be first. They were widely acclaimed, not only by French spectators, but also by foreign and local people, and by all connoisseurs. Unlike other competitors, Vanessa and Morgan convey true emotion. Pair figure skating has remarkable technicians, formidable schooling, they bring their perfect knowledge and teach their athletes how to win. But I think that getting ahead of them is feasible, precisely if we convey emotion like our skaters did tonight. We will hear again of Vanessa and Morgan at en even higher level, as soon as next year at the Olympic Games. They deserve it. This time, we were able to make the right choices. [In the past] we made mistakes, maybe we held onto prior [bad] decisions. This season, we found the right coach at the right time.
S.I.G. : They are not among the youngest French athletes, but such a talent deserves to be given support at the highest level. We need young skaters but also more seasoned athletes. Do you agree ?
Didier Gailhaguet : What you say is interesting. I was recently talking to two former pair champions, and they told me that they really admired Vanessa. "She is a jewel", they said. Something I already knew for long, but it was necessary to make a real partner for this terrific skater out of Morgan. It has not always been easy. Their new coach [John Zimmerman] solved many of their problems, so tonight, it's happiness for all of us.
S.I.G. : Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron came only in third place after the Short Dance. They indeed made mistakes, but here in Ostrava, we felt some kind of awkwardness, maybe eve traces of a plot against the French dancers. What do you think ?
Didier Gailhaguet : Before complaining about the results, you need to be imperial. We were not. Gabriella and Guillaume made a big mistake… But again, we know that we have, with them, the biggest talents in the world and they are only 21 and 22 years old. I hear people saying : "we have time". No, we don't. When the train passes by, you have to jump on board. We are talking Olympic train here. We won't be pushed around because some people think that, because of Papadakis and Cizeron's young age, older athletes or athletes coming back to competition, it's not their turn to win. The country concerned counts on these skaters because they are its only chance for a medal. I think that Vanessa and Morgan have a chance to win a medal, but Gabriella and Guillaume must aim at gold. Of course, sport has its contingencies. But we strongly dislike what is currently happening and we will try to put things in order. There was a problem with the ranking in the Short Dance and the Russians [Bobrova/Soloviev] are now in first place. Bad judging about a prohibited second lift came to our attention. This is a serious problem, since the technical controllers, who are the firsts in line, were not sanctionned straight away. And talent must also be rewarded, we think that our dancers are currently high above the crowd.
S.I.G. : In the ladies competition, we have now young but experienced women like Laurine [Lecavelier] and Maé [-Bérénice Meité]. But it seems that hyper-technical teenagers are much more en vogue. What is your take on this ?
Didier Gailhaguet : I agree. Russian and Asian "factories" produce exceptional skaters. They spin and twirl and pull off things technically out of this world. That is what judging is now based upon. Their domination is logical since they have all what it takes to win : morpholy and physiology. But it takes years to build stars like Katarina Witt and Michel Kwan who can win everything every year. We remember them because, on the ice, they were true women. Today, we see adolescents versus women. Ashley Wagner is a woman. Evgenia Medvedeva is incredible but she is a baby ! I am pondering... and I think it is something the International Federation should look at. We must choose what we want to do with Ladies figure skating. Does it have to express beauty, grace, sensuality, or must it all be about technique ? I wish that, on the initiative of France, this matter will be debated at the I.S.U. conference next June. I do not necessarily know the solution, but yes, this is a real problem.
S.I.G. : How can you explain that a program like Laurine's, performed perfectly, and which includes the same difficulties as a Russian's who ends up in 4th place, painfully reaches 63 points when it is better constructed ? Where is the logic ?
Didier Gailhaguet : I fully agree. This season, Laurine improved tremendously. With her, we have a true woman on the ice, not a little girl. To me, she is what the audience wants to see. I agree, rules have to be set, but not according to criteria that give an advantage to only a few countries. Of course, we must not lose touch with the sport and Olympic spirits, which involve exploit. You do not tell Renaud Lavillenie [pole vaulter] to jump over 5m50 and to look good at the end of the pole, you want him to jump over 6 meters. We must save the will for feat. But our sport has two dimensions, one technical, one artistic and we must cast a favorable light on this subtle mixing.
S.I.G. : Let's talk again about the scoring. Why are small countries (that inlcudes France) always required to do "a little bit more" for their athletes to be judged at fair value ? Is it a political problem ?
Didier Gailhaguet : We are talking of a sport where the problem of the technical note is now under control. But it took time. On the artisctic side, how do you quantify an emotion provided during a program ? For instance: Vanessa and Morgan here, or Marina [Anissina] and Gwendal [Peizerat] in Prague, the whole rink gave them a standing ovation... You cannot set parameters for emotion on a chip card or in a computer program. That is where the main difficulty lies. Had the scores been given by the audience tonight, Vanessa and Morgan would have been ranked higher. But the Pairs event here was great, one of the best in Europe since long. I have noticed that North-American figure skating, more stereotyped, is no longer in full bloom. I think that France has more chances to obtain good results at Worlds than here, in Ostrava, where we have a lot of judges coming from Eastern countries. I have confidence in Laurine who is on the right tracks. She has really improved and, with the same kind of performance, she should get better scores in Helsinki.
S.I.G. : Regarding Maé-Bérénice Meité, she is far from being lost for figure skating, her practice sessions here were excellent...
Didier Gailhaguet : True, in fact it has more to do with personal problems. She needs to know who she wants to be. It is not always that easy for a young woman. She is trying to find herself but she is a sensible and clever woman who do not fit the common beauty criteria manufactured by figure skating. She is not happy with this and I tell her : "skate like Grace Jones, show us something else than Swan Lake". Maé could play handball, she hardly matches the physical traits of the Russian breeding ground, with Medvedeva or her little teammates. The judges' decisions are based upon these traits when they should judge Maé upon her personality and her skating. These days, she does not use her physical capacities at the most, although they are exceptional ! Her vertical springiness is 23 centimeters ! She heads for her jumps with all her might, then try to include arms moves... and she loses her own identity in the process. To establish herself, she needs to be different, just like Vanessa and Morgan are. They found and imposed their own style, like other figure skating stars before them. French figure skating is a chance for European and World skating, because we are not like the others. That is why I am a bit angry with Maé, she does not take advantage of her difference, she doesn't use it as an asset.
S.I.G. : What about Kevin Aymoz ?
Didier Gailhaguet : Kevin didn't like living in Annecy, but he acknowleged the excellent work that was done there. He is a decent young men, that's good. He chosed to move to Grenoble to work with a coach who was on a sick leave. Five weeks before the European championships, we had to find a solution. I asked Katia Krier to go to Grenoble, she was great. We found a solution for six weeks, we are now working on something more stable and appropriate. I trust him, he is a gem. We are going to raise this kid like you cultivate a rare flower in a greenhouse. We let him free to do a lot of things, coaches hate losing a gem. So you go from one compromise to another and it is no longer high level work. High level means six to seven hours of work a day. We have to teach him everything, Kevin is like a crude diamond that needs polishing.
S.I.G. : These European championships, isn't it a bit early for him ?
Didier Gailhaguet : No, no, he is here to gain experience. Whether people like it or not, he won French Nationals. He needs to open his eyes to the world, when you live in Annecy or Grenoble, things are different. He went to Junior Worlds last year, it would be logical for him to go again this year. We will see how he is doing here in Ostrava. Someone reported an anecdote to me. At practice, Katia Krier scolded him : "if you go on working like you do now, don't even think as having me as your coach. As of tomorrow, you can forget about me, I will not even be at the board during your performance". And Kevin responded : "OK. You don't know what you'll miss". I love this ! Such a behavior is great. It is a good reaction, he is like a wild horse we must tame. I'm telling you, I slaughtered Chafik [Besseghier] for two months because he didn't work. I asked him to do five quadruples in two days. I told him : "if you don't do them, I'll chop your head off !" I forbade him to come anywhere near the ice , I had him expelled from his flat, the whole nine yards... Once in a while you need to speak to these kids. I call them "kids" even if, at his age, he is no longer one. Well, maybe in his head sometimes... (laughs) I put him under pressure and now I'm encouraging him. At Nationals, he did as I told him. I don't know if you saw him at practice, he is tough. He has true qualities, physically and as an athlete. What's in his legs, it's strong, tonic. His technique has improved, he makes sense on the ice thanks to his physical condition. His spins are really better, he really worked hard, we are going in the right direction. But I won't spare him a thing because I like him a lot.
S.I.G. : Where is he currently training ?
Didier Gailhaguet : In Bercy. Authority is competence. Chafik needs to be aware of this to keep on improving. We need coaches with an iron hand in a velvet glove. Non-sense authority, just like permissiveness, in order not to see your athlete going elsewhere, are useless. I have two sentences regarding coaches : there are no bad trainees, only bad coaches. Athletes are free but it does not mean they know what to do in order to succeed. Sometimes it is hard to be the mean guy, but it goes with the territory and I become used to it. We came back from the last Olympic Games with a beautiful 4th place, that wasn't meaningless, but we mainly received criticism. In a country where the state does not make choices for people, our job is also to solve problems occuring in the career of our athletes. That's not how it works in Russia for instance. In Russia, you follow orders, this is it, period. I have had countless meetings with every athlete, I offered them the basics for their training. The better they perform, the better they score, the better they score, the more we offer support and rewards and prize money. I am going to talk figures : 71.7 % of our budget is spent on our athletes, all disciplines taken together. According to my analysis, other federations spend only 45 to 55% of their budget [on their athletes]. Russia, with only three disciplines, figure skating, ice dance and synchronized skating, has a budget of € 8 millions. When you get the good ranking that we have with our means, our qualities and flaws, our talent, the price-quality ratio isn't that bad ! But fighting is hard. Journalists say that Russia monopolizes everything. Yes but please let's compare what is comparable. For instance, in judo, 76 medals are handed out at Olympic Games. In our sport ? Only 12. If our federation wins one, the ration is 6 out of 70. It has to be said ! All our athletes were among the ten firsts in Sochi, for the exception of one. French skating is far from being washed out !
Interview by Emmanuel Leroy
Translation by Dafne Farzan