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French Surfing Team Tokyo Games 2020 – Preview

France has never been a powerhouse of world surfing in the same way that Australia, the United States and now Brazil are, but with a vast west coast and some of the best beach breaks in the world at their disposal, it’s no surprise that they still produce plenty of high-quality surfers. They’ve filled their quota for the upcoming Olympics with two men and two women heading to Tokyo, so let’s have a look at how their team is likely to fare.

The Team

Of the four French surfers heading to the Olympics, three of them qualified courtesy of the  Championship Tour – albeit only just. The top ten men and top ten women at the end of 2019 all qualified in this way, but with only two representatives allowed per country for each gender, some qualified despite finishing outside the top ten. Michel Bourez was one example – he finished back in 13th, but with three Brazilians and four surfers from the US ahead of him, he was able to snare the last spot. He’ll fly the French flag on the men’s side with Jeremy Flores, who finished in tenth. Johanne Defay was the final French surfer to qualify for the Olympics through the CT, and like her male counterparts she only just scraped in having finished eighth in 2019 – though in fairness she was a long way ahead of the surfers immediately below her.

The final spot for France was only recently confirmed, with Pauline Ado qualifying via the recently concluded ISA World Surfing Games. Incidentally, Team France came out on top at that event with Joan Duru winning the men’s side of the draw, but with Flores and Bourez having already qualified he will still miss out on a spot at the Olympics.

The Men

As mentioned, both of France’s male representatives took the quickest qualification route to Tokyo, but they weren’t exactly competing right at the top end of the Championship Tour in doing so. Both of them finished that season with a similar number of points – around 32,515 for Flores and 29,315 for Bourez. For comparison, Italo Ferreira won with 59,740 points, so they were a fairly long way back. Both of them are well into their 30s, and though they have their moments, the 2019 season generally followed the story of their careers.

Flores first entered the Championship Tour scene back in 2007, and though he’s enjoyed a handful of top ten finishes, he’s never ended a full season in higher than eighth spot. In those 13 years on Tour he has won three events, but perhaps even more relevant for the Olympics is the fact that he has made 12 semi-finals in that time. Obviously only three competitors earn medals in Tokyo, and given four surfers make it through to the semi-finals, this is the level he will need to get to if he wants to get onto the podium. Having done so just once a year since 2007, or close to 10% of the time, it would appear he’s up against it. Having said that, he did win one event and make another final in 2019 so at his best he’s capable, but in five events so far in 2021 he hasn’t made it past the quarters.

Michel Bourez’s story is not super different from that of Flores, though he has probably had higher highs and lower lows. His highest finish was fifth back in 2014, while he also has a couple of sixth place finishes, but notably that 13th place finish a couple of years ago was his highest since 2016. He has a similar semi-final strike rate to Flores, having made 11 in his 12 years on tour, but it’s worth noting that his best results have typically come at hollow, barrelling waves – particularly lefts – which closely mirror those he grew up surfing in Tahiti. He’s one of the best tube riders in the world, and though he has his moments on different kinds of waves – he did win in Rio in 2014 – he will probably not be favoured by conditions at Tsurigasaki Beach. 

The Women

Johanne Defay is the France’s best chance for a medal on the women’s side of the draw, and probably at all. At just 27 years old she’s in a different phase of her career to the French men, and has finished in the top ten every year since she entered the top-level competition in 2014. Typically, however, she hasn’t been right up there – three of those six top-ten finishes have been eighths, and another couple have been ninths. She’s made something of a habit of being knocked out in the quarterfinals, something which would see her fall just short of a medal in Tokyo, but harking back to the end of 2019 her last few results have been fairly solid. In her last ten events, only once has she failed to make it to the last eight – six of those runs have ended there, one has ended in the semi-finals, while she has also made two finals in that time. She’s certainly a rung below the likes of Carissa Moore, Steph Gilmore and Tyler Wright, but she will be there or thereabouts in the latter stages of the Olympic event and is every chance of sneaking onto the podium.

Pauline Ado, in contrast, would be a surprise addition to the placegetters. Hailing from Bayonne on France’s southwest coast, the 30-year-old undoubtedly has plenty of talent, something she showed as a junior by becoming the first non-Australian to win the junior world championship, which she did back in 2009. She hovered around the top ten in the world in her first few years as a pro, but progressively dropped down the rankings from 2013 onwards and has spent the last few years plying her trade in the lower levels. Her performance at the ISA World Surfing Games suggest she’s still more than capable of surfing at a high level, but it’s unlikely she’ll be able to match it with the best in the world.

France has filled their quota with four solid surfers, and on both the men’s and women’s side of things they have an outside chance of snatching a medal. It’s unlikely that they’ll be leaving with a Gold, but Defay in particular is likely to still be around in the concluding stages of the event. Flores and Bourez, too, should be able to make it through the initial stages, but for all three of them, the question will be whether they can keep pace with the top handful of surfers in the world in Tokyo.