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Friday, 31 October 2008

Jeannie Longo - A French sporting legend turns 50

She's an astounding athlete by any measure - arguably one of the all time greats, and something of a sporting heroine here in France and in the world of cycling.

Today, October 31, Jeannie Longo celebrates her 50th birthday and what better way to pay some sort of tribute to her by reminding everyone of just how extraordinary she is.

You don't believe me? Take a quick look at the career - and you cannot fail to be impressed.

Her glittering and long career has brought with it a slew of medals at national, world and Olympic level - 55 in total.

In short - never an easy thing to do for a an athlete whose career has spanned almost three decades - her first title was at the age of 21 when she became the French road race champion for the first of 15 times.

The most recent was in winning the same event in June, just days after picking up the French national time trial.

Her Olympic career doesn't read too badly either with four medals all together including one gold, two silver and one bronze. The first of those came back in Atlanta in 1996, and she only narrowly missed out on bronze at this year's games in Beijing, finishing seconds shy of the bronze medal in the women's road time trial.

As she celebrates her half century, much of this country's media has been hotfooting it to her home near Grenoble in the French Alps.

She's not the most media-friendly of sportswomen, often appearing taciturn and somewhat aloof when interviewed, but there's no denying the contribution she has made to cycling - and that's something every sports lover here recognises.

Saturday's edition of the French sports daily L'Equipe will be paying tribute to Longo, and has invited her to become only the fourth French sports personality to act as the paper's guest editor for a day, after basketballer Tony Parker (2003) swimmer Laure Manaudou (2006) and soccer international Thierry Henry (2007).

Of course there's always that lingering issue as to when, if ever, she plans to retire.

It's a question she has been asked many times, as she admitted during a lunchtime interview on French public television.

And checking out her website, there's no indication that she's thinking about climbing out of the saddle any time soon, although she has admitted that Beijing was probably her last Olympics.

But her sights are very much set on next year's world championships in Switzerland, even if she remains evasive as to what exactly her plans are.

"Ballet dancers stop in their early forties I believe. I'm not crazy, she told L'Equipe.

" I'm aware there are limits. I find it especially difficult to predict the future in general, and even in my personal life."

In spite of her success and longevity, Longo remains as modest as ever, and turning 50 apparently doesn't really impress her that much.

"What does it change," she said in one of the many interviews published today.

"50 is like 49 only maybe a little sadder. It's not as though it were a national holiday."

And the secret of her longevity? Well apart from the fact that she's an expert on nutrition, fervently supports organic products, and pays attention to what she eats and drinks, there might be something in the genes, with a mother who "was still skiing at the age of 81 and a father still riding his cross country bike at 91."

Bon anniversaire Jeannie.

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