Gwladys Épangue – A flagbearer for women’s sport, and a whole lot more

Gwladys Épangue has had a remarkable international taekwondo career, with a record of achievements that includes an Olympic medal, five World Championship podium finishes, including two titles, four European titles and 15 French national championship victories. Today, she is a member of the Paris 2024 Organising Committee Athletes’ Commission, having served as Chef de Mission for the French delegation at the YOG in Buenos Aires, and works as head of communications for her federation. As she explains here, developing women’s sport is one of her priorities. 

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“I was lucky enough to start out in a club where girls and boys were admitted in exactly the same way – there were no differences; it really was a mixed club. I took up taekwondo just when it was added to the Olympic programme, in September 1994. But I didn’t know that. Initially, that goal wasn’t something that inspired me; let’s just say it was more an idea that was put into my head.

I gradually worked my way up the ladder to become French national champion. I was called up to the national team for the 2000 European Championships and won the silver medal. The national technical director and coach at the time then encouraged me to join the French Olympic training centre to prepare for the Games in Athens. That was how it happened. They said to me: “We really liked your performance today, we think you could make it to the Games.” Honestly, while I was working my way to the top in taekwondo, bit by bit, I’d never thought to myself that I could compete in the Olympic Games one day.

In Athens in 2004, there were still some differences between the men and women in our French Olympic team. Even though we had parity in terms of the athletes selected, we felt that there were more expectations on the men. But in Athens, things changed. There were four athletes (two women, two men) and we earned two podium finishes. Bronze for Pascal Gentil, silver for Myriam Baverel. She’s the one who took the lead in terms of medal value. That marked the start of a change.  

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Things developed quickly. Women’s taekwondo and the results being obtained were increasingly taken into account. That was liberating for the women, who stopped hiding behind the men and started to properly engage with their desire to go higher, to win medals and to become Olympic, world and European champions. It was a real desire to win, and no longer just to wait for the men to get the results. And that extended to the coaches, who had more and more expectations in the women. For us in taekwondo, there has always been parity, the same number of women and men in a team; it has always aimed to be a mixed sport, and that’s an important point. The only differences related to how performances were considered.   

I don’t think I’ve had to overcome difficulties as a woman in my sport, but I have seen this elsewhere, even though it was a long time ago. I remember the footballer Hoda Lattaf telling me: “Women’s football is tough, we don’t have anything; they don’t bother with us and don’t take us into consideration at all.” But all that has changed. Although there’s still some way to go, you can now watch women’s football on TV, and I’m so happy about that. Maybe taekwondo was once a sport dominated by men, but that was a long time ago. From the moment that it became an Olympic sport, the emphasis was very quickly on parity.

From the moment that it became an Olympic sport, the emphasis was very quickly on parity. Gwladys Épangue France

When I won the bronze medal at the Beijing Games in 2008, and then my two world titles, I felt the interest growing. Even before that, in 2007 at the World Championships in Beijing. We took only one medal there, the silver which I won by getting to the final. I spared France from total failure, and that was important symbolically. There were other athletes with just as many expectations on them, but it was a woman who won the medal!  

Being Chef de Mission for the Buenos Aires 2018 YOG was a fantastic experience. A huge honour. It seems that in the entire history of multidisciplinary competitions, no woman had ever been appointed Chef de Mission for the French delegation. I took the role very seriously; it was really important for me to be relevant as a Chef de Mission, to put forward interesting proposals and to monitor the teams, both the management and the athletes. For me it was great to get that recognition.

I had to make sure that the coaches and athletes had everything they needed to go about their activities in the best possible conditions: that they ate on time in the canteen, that they could use a quick transport service to get to the training venues, that they had all their equipment to hand, that everyone felt as comfortable as possible. It was an incredibly rewarding role. And being able to speak with all the other Chefs de Mission to learn about how they do things in their countries is really rewarding too, and helps you to develop. There were a fair number of female Chefs de Mission. We met up from time to time to exchange information and hear about how things were going for each country and how everyone had been selected. I was increasingly aware of the shift towards full parity at these YOG.    

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For me, the priority is to promote women’s sport and make sure that young girls take part in physical or sporting activity, of whatever kind. And because we are somewhat lacking in role models, it’s my duty to appeal to girls and encourage them to push themselves to their limits on and off the field of play, so that they too can become role models. If we can also harness this at political level to inspire young people, that’s a very powerful weapon. I refuse to just be a flagbearer for women’s sport; I really want to represent as many people as possible. But women’s sport means a lot to me because we need to develop it further and provide more tools in clubs so that women have the means to train. They need role models, they need to see inspirational figures.

As part of the Paris 2024 Athletes’ Commission, I take part in talks, meetings and forums, but I’m not just representing Paris 2024. During our Commission meetings, I put forward ideas on specific technical points, about the Olympic Village for example. We’re currently thinking about what we could do differently and what could be best for the athletes in the Village to guarantee them a unique experience.  

There are still some differences between men’s sport and women’s sport, but the positive thing is that we are getting rid of them bit by bit. Gwladys Épangue France

There are still some differences between men’s sport and women’s sport, but the positive thing is that we are getting rid of them bit by bit. It all starts with the policy you choose. I’m delighted that there will be full parity between men and women at the 2024 Games in Paris. Half of the 10,000 athletes will be women – that’s a very powerful symbol. It starts with the athletes, and maybe subsequently it will be in the governing bodies. That’s why it is important to get young girls interested in playing sport, because in the future, even if they don’t become high-level athletes, there’s nothing to stop them from becoming high-level leaders. Sport is one of the gateways to gender equality. I strongly support the IOC’s position on full gender parity in sport, in management positions and on governing bodies.”    

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