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France surfs wave of Olympics swimming success to edge old rival Britain in medals table

08/02/2012 06:57 EDT | Updated 10/02/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - Seven years after longtime favourite Paris lost the bid to host the 2012 Summer Games to England's capital city, France is edging its old cross-Channel rival in the medals table.

Unprecedented swimming success and a powerful women's judo team have propelled France to six golds and 16 medals overall.

France was fourth in the medals table after Thursday's events, with the host nation on five gold and 15 overall.

The French success story starts in swimming.

Three golds in London have doubled France's all-time total in the Olympics pool, with team sensation Yannick Agnel helping create a halo effect. French judo and canoeing teams are also radiating success.

"We're very proud because these athletes have also sent the message that French sport is high-performing and that France knows how to win," Christian Donze, technical director of France's swimming federation, told The Associated Press.

Agnel left United States star Ryan Lochte in his wake twice to anchor the 4x100 relay team to victory, and take the 200 free individual title. French President Francois Hollande was poolside at the Aquatics Centre to hear "La Marseillaise" anthem played for the 20-year-old from Nimes.

"He could be the star of the games," Australian three-time Olympic champion Grant Hackett said of Agnel, who will anchor the 4x100 medley relay team on Saturday.

Camille Muffat has a medal of each colour, getting her gold in the 400 free to dethrone home favourite Rebecca Adlington.

Like Agnel, Muffat is coached in Nice by Fabrice Pellerin who persuaded the 22-year-old local girl to switch from the medley event she raced in Beijing.

Pellerin also mentors one of Muffat's bronze-winning 4x200 free teammates, Charlotte Bonnet, and another of the men's free relay Olympic champions, Clement Lefert, an economics graduate from the University of Southern California.

Two more French gold medallists authored personal stories of a kind the Games thrive on.

Lucie Decosse finally won an Olympic judo title at the third attempt, and Tony Estanguet reclaimed the canoe slalom title he won in Sydney and Athens.

The 30-year-old Decosse moved up a weight, to the 70 kilogram class, to complete her set of major championship titles.

"I got silver in Beijing and I cannot forget that, but I hope I will only remember my victory in London. I am at peace with myself completely," she said.

Four of Decosse's six female teammates have taken bronze medals, and only traditional power Japan can match France's six judo medals so far.

On the white water, Estanguet's training partner Emilie Fer on Thursday became the first French woman to win an Olympic canoeing title.

Fer paid tribute to fervent French support at Lee Valley: "I would like to have been a little mouse amongst the supporters to hear everything they were saying."

Back in the athletes' village, Donze believes the example set by his swimmers — in behaviour as well as results — is spreading among the 332 French athletes.

"We must be in an Olympic team," Donze said, speaking of his swimmers with evident pride. "We sent a little message of energy. It is that which is also the strength of this team."

France is already in sight of its 2008 Beijing Olympics gold-medal tally of seven, though 41 overall there was a national best since Paris hosted the games in 1900.

The gold standard might be matched on Friday, when five-time world champion Teddy Riner starts favourite in judo's heavyweight class.

The defending champion men's handball team is another strong favourite to raise the French flag in London.

And if track cyclist Gregory Bauge, in the men's sprint, can deny popular Briton Jason Kenny in the Velodrome — which is fast becoming a cauldron of British passion for a traditionally French sport — well, so much the sweeter.

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