Spotlight on the main medal contenders. Number 5: France

Medal spotlight on France: Expected to cut the mustard

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Our cross-Channel rivals are playing catch-up against the host nation, with a target of doubling their Beijing gold haul, as Robin Scott-Elliot reports

At five past 10 tomorrow morning the Eurostar will glide into its platform at St Pancras station in London. On board will be the advance party of the 333 athletes who will make up the French team for the 2012 Olympics, the Games that could have been theirs. Imagine the glee back home if the train were delayed.

That the first group contains 21 boxers may be a statement of intent; with the last arrivals of the day including 31 fencers, this party might be termed armed and dangerous. The task they and the rest of the French team face is a mission that will require all the bombast and derring-do of the Three Musketeers; the emphatic demand back home is to double the number of gold medals won in Beijing.

This is not a comfortable time for French sport. "L'Heure Anglais" was how L'Equipe greeted Bradley Wiggins' arrival in Paris, with the French capital granted a day in the sporting spotlight, one even then set to the musical accompaniment of their neighbours' dirge of an anthem, before the focus swings emphatically across the Channel.

It was seven years ago that London beat Paris to be awarded its third Games – now one more than the French capital, which hosted its last Olympics in 1924. There is a notion that London's triumph was conjured from nowhere, yet before it ever came to the vote in Singapore there was growing evidence that Britain was winning over the waverers. Transport may well prove problematic, at times traumatically so, across the 17 days in London, but reports compiled into the respective bids in 2005 identified that as an even bigger potential issue in Paris. When it came to the vote, London led in every round but one before its final, narrow victory.

Paris will come again. Denis Masseglia, the man at the top of the National Sporting and Olympic Committee of France, has already spoken of bidding for the 2024 Games – success would be fourth time lucky. But more immediately the focus is on a needed improvement on the field of play.

It is Britain's development as an Olympic force – on and off their bikes – that should cause the gravest embarrassment in France. In 1996, France won 15 gold medals and finished fifth in the Atlanta Olympics. Five of those golds came in cycling. Britain won a single gold and came 36th, behind North Korea, Algeria and Ethiopia. Four years ago France finished 10th with seven golds; Britain was fourth with 19 – eight of them in cycling, six more than France.

The key for Britain came with the 1997 introduction of Lottery funding for elite sport. Its careful investment has produced not only medal-winning athletes but also the facilities and support staff to pave their way to the podium.

Swimming offers one prime example, with the establishment of regional training centres, complete with coaching staff, sports scientists and physiotherapists. Cycling is another, and perhaps the most painful for the French to observe, with the state-of-the-art set-up at the Manchester velodrome. At grass-roots level, France may boast better-funded and more accessible sporting facilities – and of course there is a strong argument to be made that that is how central funding should be spent – but when it comes to the elite level there is ground to be made up on Britain.

This Olympic cycle has seen more money ploughed into the top tier from French central government. Training and preparation programmes have been overhauled and extra funding allocated. The National Institute of Sport has also been extensively revamped. In return the sports ministry wants 41 medals, 14 of them gold. That would be an improvement of one medal on Beijing, coincidentally the same rise the British Olympic Association is cautiously targeting.

It is, though, double the number of golds won in 2008. Beijing was a curate's egg of a performance – the total number of medals was France's best since 1920 – and demonstrates just how thin the margins have become at the highest level. France won 16 silver medals – improve half of them by a place and the target is achieved.

There are some bankers. Those fencers for a start. Fencing is the country's most successful Olympic sport – they have won nearly twice as many medals there as in track and field – and Laura Flessel-Colovic, a 40-year-old from Guadeloupe who has won two épée gold medals, will carry the flag at the opening ceremony. The men's épée team is unbeaten in seven years.

Grégory Baugé is one French cyclist who will be confident of succeeding on British soil. The current world champion is strongly fancied to win the sprint and see off Jason Kenny, the man preferred to Chris Hoy, in the process. Baugé had been stripped of his 2011 world title after missing a series of dope tests – it meant Kenny was upgraded to the rainbow jersey – but in Melbourne in April he reasserted his ascendancy in the event by beating the Briton in the final.

Other cycling success is likely outside the velodrome. Julien Absalon is chasing a third successive mountain bike gold at Hadleigh Farm, one of the final medals of the Games. Events on the BMX track are horribly unpredictable but Laëtitia Le Corguillé is a strong contender to turn Beijing silver into London gold, and upset Shanaze Reade's home hopes en route, while Joris Daudet and the delightfully named Moana Moo Caille finished second and third at the men's World Championships earlier this year.

French strength in the pool lies in the sprint events. Yannick Agnel, a 20-year-old from Nimes, could cause one of the shocks of the Games by interrupting the Michael Phelps/Ryan Lochte golden procession. No one has swum quicker in the 200m freestyle this year. The women's 400m freestyle is set up to be one of the highlights of the opening week in the pool, where Camille Muffat is a potent threat to Rebecca Adlington's prospects of repeating her double success of four years ago.

There is one area, though, where success over Britain is certain. The men's handball tournament opens with the hosts playing France; a team that did not exist five years ago against les Experts, the world, European and Olympic champions. That is one hour guaranteed to belong to France.

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