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Diagana: “You have to be that little bit reckless”

© Philippe Millereau

Vendée Globe: What does the Vendée Globe mean to you?

Stéphane Diagana: “Looking beyond the sporting achievement, it is above all a human adventure. Bigger than what you find in any other sport. The first hurdle is the fear you face when you set sail. Sailors are humble enough to know that when you set off in the Vendée Globe, its remains above all an adventure, and it is that aspect that fascinates me.”

VG: Which Vendée Globe do you remember most?

SD: “That is a tricky one, as you remember particular moments in the race and what people go through. There are stories I read about after they happened, in particular Isabelle Autissier’s. They are memories that stay with you of men and women lost in the middle of nowhere, the violence of the elements in an exceptional environment. In the Vendée Globe, you’re alone and far from any help and that can be frightening; people say they know what they are doing and that they are sportsmen, but at the same time you have to be a bit reckless, just that little bit to want to accept the danger. Massive things can happen, but the sailors always seem to be in their element.”

VG: When did you first start watching the Vendée Globe?

SD: “When Isabelle Autissier took part. Firstly, I was fascinated. I love sailing. It’s not something I imagine or want to do. I really admire them and can’t imagine doing what they do, going through what they go through, and these sailors scare me. It takes courage and preparation, and they have to be that little bit crazy, even if they have to keep that under check. How on Earth can you just forget the elements, when they are going wild outside and see what you are?”

VG: Are the Vendée Globe more than just sportsmen?

SD : “Certainly. You have to be a sportsman, be prepared and competition means you discover yourself deep down whatever the sport. There is always an adventure where you find out about yourself in whatever area, sports, music, arts. Here it is the big one, because your life depends on it. You take that extra step when taking part in sports – I’m thinking of mountain climbing in particular – where you have to accept something risky, where the consequences can be dramatic.”

VG: Does the sea and the ocean scare you or attract you?

SD: “When you are fascinated, you are attracted. It’s a bit like when you get close to the edge of a cliff: you always want to take one more step. It’s so thrilling. At the same time you want to step back to be safe. When I look, at these sailors, I believe it must be incredible to experience something so intense. Our way of looking at the world and ourselves must be transformed. On the other hand, I don’t believe I could ever endure what they put up with. I would be incapable of doing that.”

VG: If you had to draw a parallel between these two world, what do they share?

SD: “With the standard of the competition and boats that are more and more advanced, it is increasingly demanding in the world of sailing. But there is that total commitment, when you have to give it your all. All of the sailors know that before them, there have been sailors who have not returned. When you line up for the 100 metres, all that can happen is that you do well or badly or that you might injure yourself. It’s tough when that happens once every four years in the Olympics (editor: Diagana missed three Olympics due to injury and only took part in the 1992 Barcelona Games). Here it is different: you set off with that question mark hanging over you, that feeling of humility as you face the sea. That’s a good thing. You need that fear, as that reflex means you hold on to life. When you see the tension on the faces of the sailors at the start, you feel that. There are two major questions, while we have just one – getting a result; when it is no longer just a matter of winning, but surviving, you go into another dimension. Maybe, that suddenly hits them when they leave their family and dry land behind them. 

VG: Ocean racing is due to become an Olympic sport in 2024 in Paris. As a member of the athetes’ committee for those Games, do you think that this is a good thing and a big step forward?

SD: “It’s a tricky matter. I can say yes to that for several reasons, as it is away of recognising ocean racing and its sporting nature. Does the sport really need that? It takes the public away from their daily life and is much more than just a sport. In the 2024 Olympics, there will be a format a bit like in the Figaro, but it will be different from the Vendée Globe and a Transatlantic race, which do well in any case all by themselves. I’m not convinced that it is an absolute necessity for ocean racing, as this is something that makes us dream with the transatlantic crossings or the round the world voyages.”

VG: You’re a keen participant in the battle against doping. What would you like to say to the Vendée Globe skippers, who seem to have avoided all that?

SD: “That they remain out of all that! I know Thomas (Coville) quite well as well as some others that I got to know during the Sports Stars Gala. They are the right people ton pass on this prevention message and their goal is always to go that bit faster. It is something human, physiological and living. If there is an important message to pass on in this area, it should be done, as we have to recognise that there are people out there who try to get others to believe that you can’t succeed without drugs. Maybe not in sailing, but in many other sports.”

VG: What most impresses you in the Vendée Globe race?

SD: “What impresses me is the wide range of skills and the extent of the knowledge the sailors have. When you listen to Thomas (Coville) or François Gabart, it is the extent of their technical, computing and management skills… in short they have so much going on. Even if sometimes they can appear not to say a lot and you can understand why, many of them are willing to share with others and talk. It’s a sign of the times perhaps, but it’s something to seize.”

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