Up until a few days ago, the Olympic gold-medal swimmer Laure Manaudou and her trainer Philippe Lucas were a unique tandem in top-level sport. It was impossible to imagine one without the other. Indeed, the style and the look of Lucas (long blonde hair, ear-rings, metal chains and bracelets) made him an even more fascinating telegenic personage than his illustrious protégée. French TV viewers remember with amazement the first image we saw of this couple, at the time of the Olympic Games in Athens. During a training session, Laura had done something that displeased Lucas, and he scolded her harshly as if she were a naughty child. Clearly, Lucas was an iron-handed trainer, but there was no doubt about the efficiency of his methods.
A fortnight ago, the much-admired French TV host Michel Drucker succeeded in inviting the swimmer and her trainer to a popular Sunday-afternoon talk show, and viewers had their first opportunity of seeing Laure and Philippe together in a setting other than the edge of a pool. I was struck by the fact that lovely Laure looked much taller and sturdier than what you imagine when you see her in a swimming competition. As for Lucas, he came across as an exceptionally clear-thinking individual, capable of expressing himself simply and often humorously, with firm convictions about his way of handling Laure's training for the Beijing games. Then, last Sunday (election day in France), everything seemed to go wrong between them. After six years with Lucas, Laure left in a huff for Italy, and everybody imagined that she merely wanted to be closer to her Italian fiancé, the swimmer Luca Marin.
I'm not sure that the full details of Laure's decision have emerged yet, but it appears that she's fed up with the constraints of Philippe's methods, which involve swimming huge distances, day in, day out. She says she wants to "discover a new challenge", and that it's better to change trainers now, a year and a half before Beijing, rather than at the last moment. In speaking of Lucas, she said: "I know how he operates. I know Philippe well. I want to show him I can win without him."
Today, Philippe Lucas used vehement words in criticizing Laure's decision to train in Italy. He implied that, in the Italian move to entice Laure to Turin, there was big money at stake. In referring to the fact that Laure has just lost over a month of regular training, Philippe suggested that Laure is "running away from work". And he added: "When you see her [today], you have the impression that she's just spent six months on a cruise liner." Maybe Philippe, in using this image, might have been influenced by his view of Nicolas Sarkozy returning to Paris after three days aboard the luxury yacht Paloma.