Tsonga, Simon, Llodra and the others were probably ready to fight for their place at the Olympics this year. In the 80’s the reality was very different. Whilst Noah thought that the Olympics « stinks », Leconte was hesitating whether to go there or not. He finally took the trip to Seoul in 1988, and would live out there the worst experience of his career. Story.
“Well done Leconte!” “Thank you Leconte!”
It was in the Olympic village of Seoul that these charming banners were displayed. The author? Thierry Rey, former Judo Olympic champion. In charge of the animation in the village for the French delegation, the gold-medal winner at the 1980 Moscow Olympics was angry. The reason? Leconte, a finalist at Roland Garros three months earlier, arrived on site at the very last moment. He had something else to do: a tournament on the Catalan clay in Barcelona, where a big pay-day awaited him. To be honest, he wasn’t expecting to set foot on South Korean soil – it was too far, too tiring, too everything. A firm phone call with his sponsor Lacoste finally made him change his mind. A 180° turnaround. Even a little bit more: “when I saw the others at the Opening ceremony, I was a bit sad to miss it
” And Riton to continue: “Now I’m here, I want to win. I didn’t come just to take part.
” And then on TV this time: “My wife wanted me to come. Guy Drut
(The ex-husband of his then wife, Brigitte Bonel, Editor’s note) has been a gold medallist after all. For her, it would be great to see that I can get a gold medal too!
” Jean-Paul Loth, in charge of the French delegation that year remembers a tense atmosphere: “I went to pick him up at the airport. His wife advised him not to sleep in the village, so he didn’t come straight away. He only arrived there the day after. That’s when he discovered Rey’s famous banners… They were clearly taking the piss out of Henri!”
“My mum cried, my sister too”
Even without considering the pressure and his lack of preparation, Leconte’s loss against an unknown Korean, Bong-Soo Kim, 361st in the ATP rankings, didn’t serve his cause. “The guy was playing for his life,”
remembers the French tennis consultant. “Every Korean was promised a salary for life for every medal. The guy gave all he had. But even playing like that, he wasn’t better than club player!”
What happened next was like a vicious circle. Leconte quickly lost in the doubles with Guy Forget, and upon his return to Paris spoke of “a beach tournament”.
A month later, he was heavily booed at the Bercy tournament in Paris by 10,000 people. Tennis at the Olympics was far away from what it is today, but no one appreciated his attitude. “Where is your medal?”
cried the people in the stands. “I didn’t think that it was going to be that hard. My mum cried, my sister too”.
This Korean fiasco didn’t have only negative consequences according to Jean-Paul Loth. For the French group, at least: “We had the chance to get along very well with the other athletes! The Olympic village was really big, so I bought a dozen of bikes for us to be able to get around easily. People were watching us with jealous eyes because there weren’t many federations that could afford this. We were messing around, we were doing skids. I even nearly ended up in a stream! It relaxed us a bit, and it gave us a good image. Everybody thought we were nice because we were going out in support of all the French athletes! But actually, we were doing it because we had been eliminated very early in all the competitions. That’s all we had to do!”
Let’s hope for the French that in London this week, their athletes won’t find Tsonga, Simon, Gasquet and friends so nice…
By Julien Pichené