CRETE (GREECE) – She walks with a firm step, dressed in a sober navy blue suit and mid-heeled shoes. Surrounded by men, she chats with one and all, listening and making herself heard. She is Brigitte Henriques, the first woman to preside over the French Olympic Committee. She is also the only NOC female president present at the XXV Assembly of the National Olympic Committees (ANOC) which, over the last two days, was held on the Greek island of Crete with gender equality among the items on the agenda.
“Madame la présidente,” some greet her, with a complicit smile. “This is progressing slowly, but there are more and more of us. When I was a girl I couldn’t find a club to play soccer in because most of them didn’t work with women,” Henriques tells Around the Rings, between meetings, in a room of the spectacular Creta Maris Beach Resort that hosted the Assembly.
Outside, the sun still shines as if it were summer and the Mediterranean displays its full range of blue. “I can’t wait to go for a swim,” confesses the president of the French Olympic Committee before getting down to business at full speed.
– What does it mean to you to be the first woman to be elected president of the French Olympic Committee?
– First of all, a great honor because I was elected by federations representing 17 million people who practice sport and have a license, as well as 3.5 million volunteers, so, as we say in my country, we are the first party of France, I am its representative now and it is a real honor.
– And personally?
– I’ve been playing sports since I was five years old, I was a physical education and sports teacher, manager of a women’s soccer club, I got my coaching diploma and then I became a manager, so this is like the culmination of a whole career, although I never imagined I could be president of the French Olympic Committee. Defending sport and its place in society is a life mission for me and I think the fact that I have been elected is also a symbol: the world is changing and it is good that the Olympic movement can be represented by women, who make up 50% of the world’s population.
– In fact, you dedicated your victory to women.
– Yes, I did. And I did so because we are often not expected in high positions of responsibility. For me, it took a lot of personal work to imagine that I was capable of being number one in a field in which women are usually satisfied with being general secretaries, vice-presidents or treasurers, so I dedicated my victory to women so that they would dare to run for office. But I also dedicated it to the men because they were the ones who elected me in the majority, since in France there are only 16 women presidents of federations and only three women presidents of Olympic federations, which is very few. Being elected by men, on the other hand, also sends a very strong message.
– You say you never imagined yourself as president. Did you run because it was proposed to you?
– After the Women’s World Cup in France 2019, a friend said to me: the World Cup is great, it has changed things for women all over the world, but it’s only the beginning. I had dedicated six years to that World Cup and had fulfilled part of my dreams. But she told me that women were needed in the top positions, to be number one, and that they were waiting for people like me for those places. I got the message, but I said no at the time. Then, when Denis Masseglia announced that he was not standing for re-election as president of the Olympic Committee because of the age limit, I was listed at number three of possible successors and I was told it would be okay for me to run.
– Was it an easy decision?
– No. It took me a long time to decide. On the one hand, I was ready because I had already been working for a couple of years on that complex that we women often have when it comes to taking that step forward. The Olympic Games had always been a dream for me and, suddenly, all the doors were open to me. So I ran for President.
– How did you work on that complex you were talking about, did you do it alone, did you seek the help of a professional?
– Since 2019, I had asked to be accompanied because this is a particular environment.
– Because it is very masculinized?
– Not exactly, I’ve always been used to that; but because, when you reach positions of responsibility, the power struggles are quite strong. And I wanted to stay as I was, I didn’t want to lose my way of being, so I asked to be accompanied in order to reinforce my confidence.
– In what way?
– At the French Football Federation, for example, we created the “100 Women Leaders’ Club” to have a pool of women who could access positions of responsibility. The presidents of district leagues proposed their candidacy to us. We also hired a couching accompaniment to help women dare to run for those positions, to feel good about themselves in positions of great responsibility. I was involved in that program for three or four years and that allowed me to be surrounded by people with very diverse profiles, which is very enriching. And I continue in that dynamic because it is always good to be able to communicate what one feels and talk about the experience acquired, to be able to verbalize it.
– In the race for the presidency of the French Committee, there was a second female candidate and you were elected with almost 60% of the votes. Does that speak of a change of mentality in French society regarding the role of women in sport?
– We are making progress little by little. What is nice is that Emmanuelle Bonnet-Oulaldj ran an excellent campaign and was brilliant. Like me, she took a lot of time to listen to problems and think of possible solutions. The difference is that she comes from a non-Olympic federation, mine is and, moreover, I built my program, of 120 measures, in collaboration with about forty presidents of other federations who supported me from the beginning. But she made a great campaign, it was very good to be able to share it with her and I let her daughter know it when the results were known: she should be very proud of her mother.
– Do you think the time has come for a woman to preside over the IOC after 2025, when Thomas Bach completes his term of office?
– In my opinion, for such a position, what matters is competence, not gender. And the important thing is that the women who are elected should be chosen for their ability, not because we are looking for modernization in terms of gender. It is also very important that there be a choice between candidates, women and men. We are few women presidents, the number is increasing little by little and it is important that there is a pool of women who can gain access to positions of responsibility and to the presidency of the national committees. If the IOC also achieves a greater election between women and men, it will undoubtedly be a step forward.
– The ANOC General Assembly has just approved a minimum quota of 30% of women on its executive committee. What do you think?
– A couple of years ago, I was not in favor of quotas, I prefer to talk about objectives, which for me are indispensable. In France, we have a law that will oblige to have parity in the federations at the national level in 2024 and, at this moment, 300 women are missing for that to be possible. We cannot leave the federations alone in this, that is why it is important to accompany women so that they dare to present themselves as candidates. Without it, we will never get there. Parity, in fact, means crossbreeding, whether social or otherwise, and that is an added value for any organization or institution, it always brings a better performance. And that is what we have to make people understand: it is not the added value of women or men, but the added value of both together in the service of certain objectives.
– You spoke of the ability to listen as one of the features that characterized your campaign and that of Emmanuelle Bonnet-Oulaldj. Do you think that this is one of the main contributions of women to the fields in which they are present?
– I believe that there are men who also know how to listen and that there is not only one model of woman, we cannot generalize. It does seem to me that we do not lead in the same way, without this meaning that it is better or worse, but simply different. My team is equal, there are 11 women and 11 men; my commissions are co-chaired by a man and a woman; I also want to have as many female directors as male directors in my team and I am going to fight for it; and I am doing so because I think it is the normal thing to do, it is the right thing to do. But it will take time.
– The Paris Games are coming in three years, what are the main challenges for the organization?
– It will be a modern Games, with 80% of the infrastructures already in place, and with others, such as the GPE (Grand Palais Éphémère), made of wood and removable, which are fabulous. We are not creating infrastructures that will later be abandoned. Many measures have been taken concerning the environment and the Games will contribute to educating everyone in this regard. We also hope they will leave a legacy in terms of the place we give to sport in France. We are not a sporting country, we need to create a sporting culture from school to go beyond what is done now and we also want our government to invest so that sport is not an end in itself but a tool for social cohesion, health and education. We have improved, but we are far from what it should be. We need it to become a way of life.
– The Tokyo Games were unanimously described as spectacular. Will the Paris Games be equally spectacular or will they be surpassed?
– I think Paris will surpass Tokio. From what I know through the organizing committee and from what was already seen at the groundbreaking baton ceremony in Tokyo, there is an intention to modernize the Games with additional sports such as break-dancing or climbing to attract a younger audience. We also know that the opening ceremony will not be held in a stadium but on the Seine River, which will make it extraordinary, and then, there is Paris, which is always magnificent.
– We know almost more about Paris 2024 than about Beijing 2022, which opens in just over 100 days. Do you find that reasonable?
– It’s true, we know very little. We are giving a lot of support to the French athletes who will compete in Beijing because the Winter Games are always in the background. But I think that, when the competition starts, everyone will be hooked, as was the case this summer with Tokyo. In France, record audiences were broken. The hope conveyed by the Games did us all a lot of good, after months of confinement and deaths due to the pandemic.
– Are you worried that there are still so many unknowns?
– No, because, with covid, we have seen that we are forced to adapt to the circumstances. It came upon us all of a sudden, we were locked up for two months, we were confined, we had to adapt, and that is something we now know how to do. For the athletes it will be more difficult because, once again, there will be no foreign public and the sanitary measures will be strict, although we don’t know the details.
– You come from the world of soccer, how do you see your role in the Games?
– It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a child, when it wasn’t yet part of the Games. It was fantastic to see the French women’s national team in London and Rio, and it was a pity they couldn’t qualify for Tokyo. Now, we have players like Griezzmann and M’bappe claiming the Games in Paris. If the players want to take part, soccer will eventually find its place at the Games. In France, for the moment, clubs are not obliged to release their players to take part in the Games and this is something we are dealing with. In Spain, there is a law that obliges them to release them and that allows them to compete with the best in the Games. I hope that the players themselves claim the possibility of being in the Games because it would be very nice for them to win the gold in Paris 2024.
– What do you think of FIFA’s project to hold World Cups every two years?
– I think it is something that is still under study, not everyone has been consulted and, thinking about the integrity of the players, it all seems to me to be too tight, difficult. I also know that there are some countries that are calling for such a system because their competitions are not very developed and it would be a showcase for them, but with the number of matches played in Western Europe, it seems difficult to me.
– Your colleague from the Central African Republic told Around the Rings that Paris 2024 must be used to bring the Games back to French and to promote the French-speaking world. Do you agree?
– It is necessary, yes. Africa and the French-speaking world are the future of our language. It is important that we maintain solidarity and cooperation with countries with which we have many ties and to which we are very close. The fact that the Games are in Paris should help us. That should also be one of the legacies of our Games, for the French language and for the French-speaking world.