Olympic champion Yannick Agnel’s passion for Japan

Yannick Agnel of France celebrates winning the Swimming Men's 200m Freestyle Final at the 2013 FINA World Championships (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Yannick Agnel of France celebrates winning the Swimming Men's 200m Freestyle Final at the 2013 FINA World Championships (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The two-time French Olympic swimming champion, who retired from the pool after Rio 2016, has a passion for Japan. He talked to Tokyo 2020 about his new life and what he loves about the country that will host next year’s Games.  

The next Olympic Games will be held in Japan - a unique country that continuously stimulates the curiosity of many athletes who have fallen in love with its culture and tradition.

Yannick Agnel is one of them. The French athlete, who won gold in the 200m freestyle and 4x100m freestyle relay at London 2012, retired at 24 after Rio 2016. But despite leading a very active life, he found time to cultivate his passion for Japan.

It is an interest that took root at a very early age, starting with “mangas, video games and animated movies from Hayao Miyazaki,” he explained in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.

From manga to haikus

For the former swimmer, who was coached by the legendary American coach Bob Bowman (also the coach of Michael Phelps), Japan cannot be compared to any other country.

“It is a country of islanders who have managed to maintain its singularity,” said Agnel, who was also the 2013 double world champion.

“I visited Japan for the first time in 2015. It was a fantastic discovery. When you land in Japan, you instantly feel disoriented. Even the smallest things are made differently.”

Beyond his love for the country itself, Agnel loves its culture. It began with manga and now includes classic Nippon literature and haikus, the short, three-line Japanese poems that capture moments in the present or evoke by-gone times.

“Thanks to the ‘Ghost of Tsushima’ video game that I played with a friend, I discovered classic Japanese literature and haikus,” he explained. “I then read some poetry by Matsuo Bashō, Yosa Buson and other nomadic monks who are considered the Victor Hugos or Emile Zolas of Japan.”

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Meditation and sport

Yannick Agnel also finds some similarities between sport and Zen, the branch of Japanese Buddhism where meditation is a primary practice.

“There is a meditative part of sport that we can find in Zen philosophy. The goal is to focus on a specific point and to make the rest disappear. In sport, we call it ‘being in the zone’, when we are so focussed that everything looks easy and fluid.”

“Absolutely marvelous moments”

Even though he gave up swimming at a young age, the 28-year-old champion will not be experiencing Tokyo 2020 as a mere spectator.

“Those Games will have a special taste for me,” says the reader of KAWABATA Yasunari and MURAKAMI Haruki. “Because of my global interest in Japan and my passion for sport.”

And while he won’t be competing, he will be in Tokyo commentating for French TV - another of the new activities he is involved with.

It is partly this new role that made Agnel realise he was missing some elements of his former life as an athlete. Particularly the intimate moments before a race, far from the public eye, when he stood alongside other athletes in a room, with the pressure rising as they waited for their names to be announced.

“As a commentator, I realised that [I missed ] those pre-race moments, when we are in that waiting room and the excitement is rising with the crazy noise of the crowd. Those moments are absolutely marvellous. But there is a time for everything.”

France win Men's 4x100m Freestyle Relay gold | London 2012 Replays

France's 4x100m freestyle relay stun the crowd with a brilliant gold medal-winning performance at London 2012.

Pleasure seeking

The reason Agnel stopped swimming had nothing to do with his performances. The swimmer had already made that call prior to Rio 2016, although he only officially announced his retirement after the Games. He explained his decision to Tokyo 2020, stating that it was partly due to his need to find more pleasure in life and partly due to the tragic 2015 death of Camille Muffat, his French Olympic swimming teammate and very close friend.

“I have always said that I was interested in having fun and enjoying myself. I was lucky that everything [the titles] came very fast.”

“After the death of Camille Muffat, may she rest in peace, things began to be complicated. I realised that I wanted something different. I was young enough not to be stuck in sport and I wanted to explore different fields.”

Even if he is still involved in swimming through “Nageurs et citoyens” (Swimmer and citizen in English) - a programme launched by the Olympic swimmer Sophie Kamoun who works in disadvantaged areas to help children avoid drowning - Yannick Agnel is now involved in a completely different area: Esport.

I realised that I wanted something different.

I was young enough not to be stuck in sport and I wanted to explore different fields.

Esport team leader

Since 2019, Yannick Agnel has been one of two sports directors working with the French esport team MCES (Mon Club Sport) based in Marseille. This elite club wants to take inspiration from sports clubs in order to achieve better results on an international level. Agnel, who has played video games since he was a child, is responsible for using his unique expertise to improve player performance.

“The idea is to establish a performance methodology. Everything that is outside of the game itself, such as physical and psychological preparation, nutrition, medical support, team spirit etc. Every single component of performance that can appear to be just a detail. But when we compete at a high level, details make a huge difference.”

A busy trip to Japan in 2021 

“We want to bring the best sporting expertise to esports, in order to show people that this is the way e-athletes can achieve better performances.”

Esport competitions were held during the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, and Tokyo 2020 will also feature an esport tournament. Intel, the IOC Worldwide Olympic Partner, will organise ‘Rocket League’ and ‘Street Fighter V’ competitions during Games-time. It is a “start” for Agnel, who thinks that esport - where international competitions are followed online by hundreds of millions - is “as impassioning as sport, emotionally speaking.”

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Japanese cultural experiences and the upcoming esport competition, it seems likely that Yannick Agnel’s 2021 trip to Japan will be quite a busy one indeed.