Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre went all in on Rio 2016 in an attempt to get back to sprinting's top table. 

Late bloomer

Christophe Lemaitre didn’t start athletics until the age of 15. Though he arrived late to the party, he quickly found his voice.

“I tried many team sports like football, handball and rugby,” the 26-year-old Frenchman says. “But I didn’t really like it because I like to do things for myself. My mother searched for sports that included speed – athletics was a great fit.”

The one-track minded teen demonstrated his ability in a 50m race at a national sprinting event in 2005.

“The coach saw the time and asked me to run again, just to confirm the first time because he couldn’t believe it,” Lemaitre recalls. “I ran the same time again. He was impressed because I was the fastest guy of the day.”

Don’t go breaking my heart

Lemaitre broke on to the international scene in 2007 when he finished fourth and fifth in the 100m and 200m respectively at the World Youth Championships in Ostrava. The following year he won gold over 200m at the World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz.

In 2009 he took the European junior title over 100m in a European U20 record 10.03 before lining up at the Berlin World Championships, 19 and full of beans. He was the fifth fastest in the heats, before false starting in the quarter finals. He was heartbroken.

“I was there only for the 100, and to run against the best in the world. Of course I was devastated, but it happens and it was a good experience for the future.”

Christophe Lemaitre after false starting in the 100m at Berlin 2009 ()

 Devastated Lemaitre lies on the ground as he realises he has false started

Pretty fly for a white guy

The heartbreak from Berlin provided fuel for the following season. In 2010, aged just 20, he set a then national 100m record of 9.98 at the French championships. It was the first time a white man had broken the 10-second barrier. It was treated as huge by many, but not him.

“Every journalist came around me to ask that question ‘you are the first white guy to run under 10, what does it feel like?’,” he says, “and I said ‘honestly, I don’t care’.

“I didn’t understand the real impact of this. Many people around the world tell me about this as if it was a major achievement, but for me it was just a new PB. The other guys, Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and so on, they still run faster than me.”

A few weeks later he won a European sprint treble (100m, 200m, 4x100m) – a feat no French sprinter had achieved before him.

At the 2011 Daegu World Championships, in the 200m final that saw Usain Bolt find redemption after he had false started in the 100m, Lemaitre claimed bronze in a national record 19.80 from lane 6. It was a huge 0.36 second PB and his first global podium at a senior level. He promptly followed it up with silver as part of the French 4x100m relay team.

Christophe Lemaitre with his three European gold medals in 2010 ()

 2010 proved a real breakthrough year for only 20-year-old Lemaitre

Search for the perch

Since Daegu, it’s been up and down for the Frenchman. In 2012 he finished sixth in the London Olympic 200m final and last year was awarded a retrospective relay bronze. But niggling injuries had begun to affect his training. Though Lemaitre continued to win medals at European Championships (he has nine in all), on the global stage he was making finals but not podiums.

In 2015 he failed to qualify for the final of either the 100m or 200m at the Beijing World Championships. An Olympic cycle is a fleeting thing, and Lemaitre’s was in danger of slipping away. So in 2016, for the first time since 2010, he chose to pass on the European Championships and focus solely on the Olympic Games. At the start of the summer he was confident injuries would not weight him down, reporting that his starts had improved and finishing speed was strong in training.

“There is potential for us for the Olympic Games,” he said in July ahead of the Monaco Diamond League, where he impressed with second place in the 200m.

Christophe redentor

In Rio, Lemaitre failed to make the 100m final, just as he had in Beijing 12 months earlier. He was staring at the prospect of another failed pursuit of a global medal and a Euros missed for nothing. But not for long.

Finish line photo of the men's 200m in Rio ()

 3rd and 5th were separated by an eyelash: Lemaitre (20.12), Gemili (20.12) and Churandy Martina (20.13)

He advanced through the 200m semis with a SB 20.01. In a final that saw Usain Bolt romp home for gold ahead of Canada’s Andre De Grasse in clear second place, the bronze medal was decided with a microscope – and Lemaitre was under it. He crossed the line tête-à-tête with Brit Adam Gemili and there was no telling who had snatched the bronze.

An eterinity passed and everyone shuffled nervously. Then Lemaitre’s name appeared on the board in third with 20.12. He dropped to the floor. The normally quiet, reserved Frenchman let out a roar of ecstasy that could be heard high above in the stands above the track.

“This medal is the most beautiful,” Lemaitre told FranceTV.

“These last two years were very hard in terms of results, injuries, performances. It’s a new me who has risen. It’s a resurrection.”

Back on the hunt

Now, after two months off, he has just resumed training. The goals for the next season are clear.

“Of course I would like to run faster, but for each year my main goal is to run fast for the championships,” he says. “For me the championships are the most important, to win titles or international medals.”