The first thing you notice about Christophe Lemaitre is not the colour of his skin, even if it is the talking point that surrounds him. You could say his pigmentation is his sprinting definition, as the only white man to have run under 10 seconds for the 100 metres and the only white man to compete in the 200m Olympic final. But it is not that which catches the eye.
More immediately noticeable are the slight frame and relatively spindly arms in a discipline habitually renowned for its brute power and strength. While Usain Bolt weighs in at nearly 15 stone, Lemaitre is a comparatively meagre 11-and-a-half stone despite being over 6ft 2in tall. Nevertheless, Lemaitre is quick – his personal best for the 100m is 9.92 sec, for the 200m, 19.80sec.
The pair are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of personality. While Bolt is about the most gregarious athlete out there, Lemaitre is very much the shy and retiring type.
He has become used to answering questions about the colour of his skin. He merely shrugs off such talk with Gallic indifference. “It’s not important at all,” he says through a translator ahead of this weekend’s European Team Championships in Gateshead.
But he understands why the question hangs above him and his potential importance as a ground-breaker. “It has never been about the colour of my skin,” he says. “But maybe it’s important for other people to take up athletics seeing me, I don’t know. I have genuinely never thought of my colour. I only care about races, about medals at European and world level, about beating the Jamaicans and Americans, and others.”
This weekend, he once more has his sights set on continental dominance as he competes for France against Great Britain and Northern Ireland over 200m in Gateshead.
He still has some way to go to beat the world’s best at both 100m and 200m, notably Bolt, despite being a European champion and a World Championship medallist. But his belief remains undiminished. “I think that if I continue to progress at the same level and pace, it’s possible,” the 23-year-old says.
Lemaitre has enjoyed the best winter of his career, a camp in Portugal followed by competition in Miami before competing over 150m in Manchester last month.
Last year, in contrast, was far from ideal. He opted out of the 100m at the Olympics as he felt he was not a realistic medal contender in the event, and instead focused solely on the 200m. He ran a disappointing final to finish sixth and, even now, the memory rankles.
“I was so disappointed as I would have liked to have got a medal,” he says. “But I was a long way off that.”
His first goal now is to run consistently under 10 seconds for the 100m. Looking back at the first time he went under that symbolic barrier, he recalls: “It was an odd sensation of going so quickly. It was one of those moments where I felt I ran well throughout the race. It was something achieved, something I had to do to be among the best sprinters in the world.”
As a relative latecomer to the sport, the potential for progression is still huge for Lemaitre. Growing up in the small town of Culoz, in the Rhône-Alpes, his sporting passions were handball, rugby and football. It was not until he was 15 that he first tried athletics, a sport that played to his personality traits.
“I didn’t like losing as a team, the thought that someone else had lost for you or done badly,” he said. “I was not always that team player and, in athletics, I could just focus on my own goals.”
Growing up, he had no idols – in athletics or any other sport. He just focused on his own running and his studies.
Until recently, he was immersed in an engineering degree at university. Rather aptly, he explains: “It was to work in the energy production field – like renewable energy. But I had to stop the course because I had a lot of responsibilities to do with athletics and the media.”
Now fully focused on athletics, he feels 2013 can be his annus mirabilis over both the 100m and 200m. His position as European No 1 appears to be on solid footing at both distances though, for him, that is not enough.
“The most important thing is not to be the best in Europe, to beat the British runners like Dwain Chambers and Adam Gemili,” he says. “It’s to be the best everywhere.”
Christophe Lemaitre is a global ambassador for sports performance brand Asics. He stars in the latest “Better Your Best” brand film, which can viewed at www.asics.co.uk