01 July, 2017

An interview with N. Debois

A few months ago when I set out to write a post on the difference between decathletes and heptathletes I was impressed by the fact that the heptathlon world record for 800 m is still standing, after 30 years. It is held by a french athlete, Nadine Debois, and what was amazing is that I could not find a single photo of hers on the web. However I did find a professor of Sport Psychology at INSEP (which is the french National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance) with the same name and I wrote her asking whether she was indeed the ex-heptathlete. She was! We exchanged some mails and Mrs. Debois provided most valuable insight on how the heptathlon differs from the decathlon for my article on “the battle of sexes”. Thus I came with the idea of an interview to be published in the blog. It took us some time to find a convenient date but finally we managed to find one at the end of January. 

We met at Mrs. Debois’s office at the INSEP where she answered my questions. Obviously our discussion was in french. In what follows I tried to transpose the interview in english in the most faithful way. The questions and answers are marked by our initials and whenever I insert a remark of mine I do it by putting it in brackets.

BG How did you come to choose combined events as your specialty?

ND I would rather say that it was the combined events that chose me. In fact, before coming to athletics I was a swimmer. At the end of 1976 I decided to drop swimming but wished to continue with some sport. Since at high-school I was good at athletics I decided, around February 1977, to join the club of Boulogne. I participated at my first competition in April. My coach decided to have me compete in pentathlon just to see how it would go. I had learned to run the hurdles, throw the shot and high jump. However my first experience with long jump and the 800 m was during that first competition. That was a competition at the county level. I did fairly well, finished second, enjoyed the competition and was qualified for the regional championships. I finished second there also and narrowly missed a qualification for the national championships.

I realised that I could excel in combined events. I had talent for several disciplines. I also liked the fact that one passes from one event to the next one particularly interesting. A competition extending over hours was also appealing. 

Specialising in heptathlon did not prevent me from shining in middle distances. In fact I ran a 2:16 as a junior without any special training. But, to tell the truth, the events I liked most were the 100 m and the high jump. Much more than the 800 m. In fact when I was a swimmer I hated it when I had to swim a 400 m or an 800 m. 

BG But a 400 m in swimming is already an event of more than 4 minutes.

ND It is not only this. What I did not like were the monotonous training sessions, where one had to swim a number of pool lengths. What I did like was training of speed and explosiveness.

BG Wow, You managed to run a 2 min 800 m without training?

ND No, that’s not true. I did train but not as much as a specialist. Still, with hindsight, I realise that I could have done better over 400 m and 800 m. The question is would I have kept the motivation for this ? When one’s career is over, one can talk about talent and potential but the essential thing is to enjoy what one is doing. 

The arrival of the heptathlon signalled for me a moment where I had to take a decision. I had a substantial handicap with the javelin throw. My PB is just 34.70.

BG I know. In Talence you threw just 31 m. Perhaps you did not like to train in javelin throw.

ND No, it's not that. In fact I did play the game, training for the javelin, for one or two seasons. But I never managed to make substantial progress. 

As a junior, competing in the pentathlon I was not bad in the shot put and was good in the remaining 4 disciplines. I was steadily progressing from 1977 to 1980. The same held true for the indoor pentathlon. With the heptathlon I was hoping to find a solution for the javelin and thus I remained a combined events athlete. This is the reason I did not convert to a middle distance runner. I am sure I could have run faster if I enjoyed the middle-distance training. The problem is that I like variety and, for me, even a 30 min jogging was boring.

BG How did you manage to combine a champion's career with a scientific one?

ND I have always been good when it came to studies.. I have two older sisters and a older brother who could not go to higher education due to financial reasons. I had the chance to be the youngest one. My high school professors did help too. 

From the start, I had an obligation to succeed. The first two years at the university were compatible with training. But one professor pointed out that that year’s group was not sufficiently good and recommended me to join the INSEP. I followed her recommandation,essentially for my studies project towards the CAPEPS. [BG A french competitive exam leading to tenured positions in physical education]. I pursued my training but my main effort was on studies and the preparation of the exam. I obtained my CAPEPS in 1983 and started preparing for the 1984 Olympics. I had missed the french olympic team in 1980 by a mere 3 cm: jumping 6.42 m, the minimum being 6.45 m. Unfortunately I did not manage to qualify for 1984 either. It took me a full two years to come back in optimal shape; I was in shape only in 1985.

I started working as a physical education professor and three years later I got a position at INSEP which allowed me to work part-time on a full salary, devoting the rest of my time to training. I did not find that situation totally satisfactory. So, I started interesting myself in research and the possibility of a doctorate in sports sciences. For this I had to follow a masters's course but the only one available was at Grenoble, geographically out of question. Thus I started by obtaining a state diploma on athletics and the diploma of INSEP which provided the basic preparation for research. This made possible to obtain an equivalence for the master's degree.

This point is essential because I believe that athletes who do not organise their life outside of sports, who live only for sports are inherently fragile. Having another pole of interest does offer stability.

Having obtained the CAPEPS I decided to try the Agr├ęgation [BG another french competitive exam more prestigious than the CAPES, leading to better careers]. That was in 1988 (an olympic year) and I immediately realised that I could not reconcile high level preparation and demanding studies. Thus the Agr├ęgation had to wait till 1992. In fact I passed the CAPEPS drawing on all my resources but, after that, I decided to take my time and do things calmly. For instance I passed my PhD in 6 years while in parallel pursuing my work. People usually take 3 to 4 years to complete a thesis (but, then, they only do this and nothing else).

BG When did you retire from competition?

ND After the 1988 Olympics. I participated with my patellar tendon partially torn off. The injury was detected just before the 1987 World's and I was advised to have it fixed by surgery. That would mean missing out at the Olympics and after having missed those of 80 and 84 I could not seriously consider it. As a consequence of the injury, I could not jump correctly and my performances fell to just 6 m and 1.75 m, meaning a loss of circa 300 points. So, at Seoul I participated only at the 4x400 m. I got operated on after the Olympics, came briefly back to athletics in 1989 and then I decided to have a child. Thus I retired from competition at 28 years of age.

BG The years 80 saw athletics become gradually a professional sport, first in the US and later in France. What was your experience of this?

ND Yes, that was the period when we started obtaining some financial support from the French Athletics Federation. There were also some modest bonuses for participation at competitions and the beginning of sponsoring. In 1988 all this made some substantial addition to my salary. 
Later on the system was amplified and sportsmen could live from their gains related to sport.

However for me athletics was essentially a hobby and not a profession. I was feeling a need for physical activity but on the other hand I was afraid that sports were incompatible with feminine traits [she laughs]. The first time I watched sport at the TV was during the 76 Olympics games. I was admiring Nadia Comaneci but on the other hand I was afraid to come to look like Cornelia Ender (remember, I started out as swimmer). That’s one of the reasons I decided to drop out of swimming !

BG What do you think about women's decathlon?

ND There are already elements of my answer in the mails we exchanged [BG see the blog post on the battle of sexes]. A decathlon would be much more appropriate. An athlete who is just fast and explosive can become a very good heptathlete. For decathlon one must be more complete. Of course the scoring tables should be adapted in order to take into account the differences between men and women, in particular in new events like pole vault. 

On a more personal level, I would welcome a women's decathlon because for me the second day of heptathlon, with just three events, is too short. I remember some competitions where the second day was already over at noon. (This is the reason I prefer the pentathlon where all five events take place in a single day). Two full days sound better to me. Also if you have one weakness in some event, you can hope to overcome it if there are 9 other events where you can excel. 

For me the javelin throw was too penalising in the heptathlon. This had also to do with the fact that I am ambidextrous. I do write with my right hand but I prefer the left. At the beginning I was using my left arm for the shot put but I soon shifted to the right one. I never managed to do this in the javelin. Speaking about the decathlon I think that I would manage the discus throw without difficulty: with my long arms I would have reached a level comparable to that of my shot put. My main difficulty would have been the pole vault where my coordination would have, perhaps, been insufficient.

BG The 80s have also been the decade of doping. Were people aware of this at the time?

ND Certainly. There were persisting rumours concerning athletes from USSR and DDR. But also athletes from the USA. I ran the 4x400 m in Seoul next to F. Griffith-Joyner and was impressed by the transformation of her body in just one olympiad's time. 

BG And in France?
ND There were already regular controls and we were convinced that the cheaters would be caught.

BG How about now-a-days?

ND Of course, there are people who take drugs. It has also to do with the question of money. Look, I do not have any objection to athletics as a profession. It is simply something that did not sit well with me. For me, high-level athletics was a choice (and I do not like it at all when people are talking about the "sacrifice" one must do in order to reach this high level). I had precise objectives. At national level I was aiming at victory. At international level I was trying to break my own records and to "reach the final". In fact, being relaxed, I often obtained excellent results. Perhaps, if I had a better chance for a podium position I would have been more nervous.

I remember the 1987 world championships where I participated already suffering from my knee injury. My heptathlon javelin throw attempt did coincide with the famous 400 m hurdles race, where Moses managed to beat Harris and Schmid by a hairbreadth. I concentrated and used the cries of the crowd as a source of energy. That was my best throw ever, a 34.70 m personal best (poor performance for others but so good for me !). 

BG What do you think about the changes of allegiance we see in the recent years?
ND As I was saying the athletes are professional and choose accordingly. For me it does make sense to chance one's nationality in case of marriages or when one really emigrates. But it should be a real, personal, choice, not something motivated by money and politics.
I could imagine people going to foreign clubs, just like in football, but participating with their national team at international competitions. There is also a question of culture, something that the medals wars are distorting.

The questions and answers ended there but we spent some more with Mrs. Debois talking about combined events. Two things of this chat are worth mentioning. 

The first was the idea to run the 1500/800 m of deca/hepta-thlon as a handicap race (just as in the case of the modern pentathlon): the first person to cross the line is the winner. ND said she could like such an arrangement since she was always running that 800 m alone at the front of the pack. But of course not everybody would be on the same footing. As the things stand today there is some suspense at the arrival which is not bad. [BG I would add that managing staggered starts with the precision of a 100th of a second is an impossible task].

The second was the idea of one-hour combined events. ND said that she had once participated at a one-hour heptathlon and that she found the experience very interesting. One has to choose a strategy. While in a normal heptathlon she was not taking risks with high jump, starting low and jumping all intermediate heights, at a one hour event this is impossible. One must anticipate and also know where to stop. One should pay attention to one's body, everything changes in so brief an event. Going to the long jump immediately after the 200 m is quite different from the normal situation where one has a whole night to rest. One hour events can be very spectacular and it is a pity they are not held more often.

To sum it up, this interview has been a real pleasure for me and I am greatly indebted to N. Debois for sparing the time to answer my questions.

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