French athletes who were formidable at Tokyo 2020

As the curtain falls on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021, we look back at the athletes from France who stood, as their nation looks forward to hosting the 2024 Games in Paris.

8 min
volley france
(Picture by 2021 Getty Images)

Tokyo 2020, in 2021 will be an Olympic Games that France is unlikely ever to forget.

There was joy in the judo, finesse in fencing, and across the team events they continued to emerge victorious, winning gold in both men's and women's handball competition.

As the Games draw to a close, we take a look back on the French heroes who rose to the challenge and stole a beam of the spotlight all for their own.

Here are just a few French athletes who impressed at Tokyo 2020.

Clarisse Agbegnenou and Teddy Riner: French Judo pair seal legendary status

There is little doubt that Tokyo 2020 will be remembered as an Olympic masterclass from the French judo team.

Under the lofty heights of the Nippon Budokan, the historical home of martial arts, the judokas of France delivered the country’s must successful judo competition in history: a feat that will surely linger the public consciousness for years to come.

They walked away with from the tatami with a grand total of eight Olympic medals: two golds, three silvers, and three bronzes.

Headlining the medal tally was Clarisse Agbegnenou who solidified her legendary status when she finally won an Olympic gold medal - the one title that had eluded her, having won five world championships and five European championships.

The flagbearer for the French delegation erupted into tears when she sent Rio 2016 final foe Tina Trstenjak to the mat for a waza’ari move to snatch the win in the -63kg competition.

Clarisse Agbegnenou gold
Clarisse Agbegnenou gold (2021 Getty Images)

Perhaps the icing on the cake for France was the way they unfastened Japan’s iron grip on judo.

The two powerhouses the sport went head-to-head for the coveted mixed team Olympic gold medal. The event was a first for the Games and a long-awaited way to establish which country would reign supreme on the Olympic stage.

In the final, Teddy Riner – who came achingly short of a third individual Olympic gold in the +100kg competition – laid his personal demons to rest and rose to the team occasion in what unfolded to be a gruelling Golden Score fight.

He bested Japanese gold medallist WOLF Aaron by an inner thigh throw to score waza’ari and help lift his country to the gold medal. Riner’s win, plus those from Agbegnenou, Axel Clerget, and Romane Dicko meant that France took the overall victory 4-1 over hosts Japan.

With the team gold medal in his pocket, 32-year-old Riner now has a grand tally of three golds and two bronzes from his Olympics appearances.

France judo
France judo (2021 Getty Images)

Nikola Karabatic: forever an icon of French handball

When the French men's handball team defeated Denmark (25-23) to win gold at Tokyo 2020, they made history, becoming the first country to claim three Olympic men's handball titles.

It's a perfect point of departure for Nikola Karabtic, a French legend of handball.

There is nothing he hasn't already done. He is a four-time world champion, three-time European champion, three-time IHF world player of the year, and now he is a three-time Olympic champion.

The man already considered to be one of the greatest of all time, and who fought hard to recover from an ACL injury just to be in Japan, certainly did not rest on his laurels at the tournament.

Karabatic produced 22 goals and 29 assists in nine games for France. He finished the competition ranked fourth for total assists, and seventh for goals and assists.

Grace Zaadi: reliable under pressure

It felt like the whole of France was willing the women's handball team on when they took to the floor in the Tokyo final.

The men's team had been victorious the day before over Denmark: could the women complete the sweep?

Throw into the mix the small matter of it being a rematch of Rio 2016 where France fell short: could the women do what they couldn't five years ago?

The pressure was on. Cue Grace Zaadi.

Throughout the tournament, the centre back had coolly, and consistently, provided whatever her team needed. With 31 assists and 33 goals of her own, Zaadi showed her willingness to play both a team role and step up individually when required.

Even in the gold medal match she was unflappable. The Frenchwoman played just over 45 minutes, contributing a healthy six assists, three turnovers, and one blocked shot.

Now the 28-year-old can forget the pain of Rio 2016 and finally boast of a gold medal of her own.

Gabby Williams: powering the French to bronze

Playing for France may have initially cost Gabby Williams a spot on a WNBA roster, but the basketball star now has had her choice vindicated by an Olympic bronze medal.

Williams' scintillating performance in the bronze medal match (itself a replay of Rio 2016 where Serbia came out on top) was an ample reflection of the way she carried herself throughout the tournament.

During the fight for bronze the 1.8m dual national (whose mother is French) notched 17 points and eight rebounds for France. Her teammates Endene Miyem and Sandrine Gruda joined her in adding 16 and 14 points each.

Williams' most impressive statistic throughout the tournament was assists. The 24-year-old recorded 27 in Tokyo, averaging 4.5 a game. Matching her sense of teamwork is also her impressive steal count. The power forward ranked third highest for steals in the competition: totalling 17, to average 2.8 a game.

Gabby Williams
Gabby Williams (2021 Getty Images)

Rudy Gobert: the stifle tower

Throughout the tournament Evan Fournier and Nando de Colo were exceptional for the French men's basketball team, but it's hard to ignore the presence and impact that Gobert had in their silver medal success.

The 29-year-old was a dominant force throughout the Games, and is first member of his NBA side - the Utah Jazz - to earn an Olympic medal since Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer helped the USA win gold in 2008.

Rudy Gobert et Nicolas Batum 
Rudy Gobert et Nicolas Batum  (2019 Getty Images)

Romain Cannone: from the outskirts to centre stage

The magic of the Games comes in all forms, but nothing unites a nation more than when their athlete disrupts the world order and stuns everyone with their victory.

Romain Cannone did just that for France at Tokyo 2020, when he bested the top three fencers in the world, including Hungary’s Gergely Siklosi in the final, to take Olympic gold in the men’s épée competition.

Not only was it France’s first gold of Tokyo 2020 but also, ahead of the Games in Japan, the Frenchman had never been on an international individual podium.

Cannone, the youngest member of the French fencing team, ended something of an individual fencing medal drought for the nation. The last Frenchman to have finished top of an Olympic podium was Brice Guyart back in Athens 2004.

Other fencing highlights included France’s record breaking eighth team foil gold - a first in more than 20 years – plus silver in the women’s foil and sabre team events and an individual bronze for Manon Brunet, leaving the French with a total of five fencing medals.

Romain Cannone
Romain Cannone (2021 Getty Images)

Anne-Cecile Ciofani: a try-scoring machine

After finishing a disappointing sixth on the fields of Rio 2016, silver in the women’s rugby tournament in Tokyo came in full redemptive spirit for France.

There was one player in blue who stood out throughout the three-day competition: Anne-Cecile Ciofani.

The Olympic Games were always the dream for Ciofani. It was a goal inherited from her Olympian parents.

What the Frenchwoman’s family didn’t expect was her choice of rugby. Walter and Jeanne were both throwers, and so too are Ciofani’s sisters.

The 27-year-old was, for a long time, on a same trajectory as every other member of her family, trying hammer and discus as well as heptathlon, then surprisingly at 18 she elected for a different course after she discovered rugby sevens.

Drawing on her solid athletic foundation, Ciofani quickly rose through the rugby ranks, and her innate ability for the sport shone in Tokyo. In six matches, the Olympic debutant scored seven tries – tying for fourth as the tournament’s leading try scorer.

Anne-Cecile Ciofani
Anne-Cecile Ciofani (2021 Getty Images)

Earvin Ngapeth: leading the way to France first ever gold

Tokyo 2020 was also a groundbreaking Olympics for men's volleyball in France.

They won gold in Japan for the first time ever, beating ROC in a tight five set final.

Leading the way in scoring, as he has done throughout much of the tournament was 30-year-old Earvin Ngapeth, who sent a total of 26 past.

The outside hitter was ruthless in Tokyo; Ngapeth racked up a total of 124 attacks, six blocks and six aces to finish second in the best scorers list for the tournament.

For Ngapeth, volleyball is something of a family affair. His father represented France at Seoul 1988. Now Earvin will surely have the bragging rights after transforming a ninth place finish in Rio to competition victory in Tokyo.

For a country that has only ever qualified for the Olympics four times before in its history, gold was truly something special. Now they will look to defend their title on their home soil at Paris 2024.

Antoine Griezmann: number one fan of Equipe de France at Tokyo 2020

Support for France poured down from social media across the entirety of the Games.

But there was one name, of international fame, that stood out when it came to celebratory messages.

Footballer Antoine Griezmann shared his joy for every French success story in Japan. From day one to day 16, he revelled in delight for all the athletes competing for their shared country.

Could there be something a little more to the footballer’s love for the Games?

A social media post during the opening ceremony hinted that Olympic appearance of his own may well be on the cards for Griezmann, and what better arena to do it in than at a home Games at Paris 2024.

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