David Owen

As a plot-line, it is inherently dramatic and as old as human history.

From Cain and Abel to the Milibands, brotherly rivalry has been among the most fertile of themes for story-tellers and tabloid headline writers.

It was once a major preoccupation for Tony Estanguet, the former French canoeing champion.

I sat down in Rio de Janeiro with Estanguet – now an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member, rising star of sports politics and co-President of Paris 2024 - to talk through what must have been a strange and unsettling experience.

First, the essential background:

The Estanguet family is from Pau in southern France. Tony’s father Henri used to be a canoeist. So did his elder brother Patrice, who is five years older than Tony.

At 1996 in Atlanta, Patrice won a bronze medal in the C-1 slalom event in the Olympic Games.

At this point Tony was 18. He qualified for his first World Championships the following year.

Fast forward to 1999, and another French canoeist - Emmanuel Brugvin – became world champion, qualifying him automatically for the following year’s Olympics in Sydney.

This left the Estanguet brothers facing a nightmare scenario: two of them; only one more Olympic place.

Tony and Patrice Estanguet were not only brothers, but also close rivals ©IOC
Tony and Patrice Estanguet were not only brothers, but also close rivals ©IOC

Sitting in a quiet corner of the extensive, bustling Maison Française in Rio, complete with miniature Eiffel tower, Estanguet junior takes up the story.

“It begins in 1996 with Patrice winning the medal - I was 18,” he starts off, speaking with the briskness of a man with a hectic schedule, but, I am sure, with sincerity. 

“We lived that moment as a family.

“It’s true it is a great moment when a member of your family, your brother, wins an Olympic medal.

“I wasn’t in Atlanta, but even so that medal made a big impression on me.

“When Patrice returned to France it was also a great moment.

“I saw very well that there was an effervescence about this medal.

“It was important for the town it was important for the sport.

“It was génial, really génial.

“It made me really want to try and go to the Games.

“Something clicked then which said, ‘If he can do it, it is possible.’

“So the four-year project became, in four years’ time I want to be in Sydney.

“During those four years I made enormous progress.

“It was an incredible Olympiad [for me]: first World Cup victory, great results.

“From year to year I really progressed.

“But the problem was there was only one qualification place for the Sydney Olympics.”

There were two places originally, weren’t there? I chip in, but the 1999 world champion had taken one of them.

Tony Estanguet won the first of his three Olympic gold medals at Sydney 2000 ©Getty Images
Tony Estanguet won the first of his three Olympic gold medals at Sydney 2000 ©Getty Images

“One year before the Games we learnt that there was only one place and we would be up against each other.

“That was a difficult race; we knew not only did we have to be very good, because I think we were really competing at a high level at that time, but afterwards we were going to have to manage our emotions.

“In confrontation against your brother; it was very, very hard.

“There were three races. I won the first; he won the second.

“So everything rested on the last race.

“I think over the six runs down the course, we were separated by less than a second.

“It was a hyper-tough tête-à-tête.

“But I think those were the races where I really turned the corner.

“A month later I won the European championship.

“I won two World Cup events, even if nobody knew who I was in Sydney.”

How, I wondered, had the French selectors informed him and Patrice that they would have to endure such a race-off?

“We knew the rules very, very well because it was very important for both of us.

"Two years before Sydney we knew exactly where we stood.

"So we realised that if another Frenchman happened to win the world title in 1999, we knew very well what was coming afterwards.

"No-one announced it to us; we understood all by ourselves.

"I remember very well: we looked at each other as if to say ‘Aargh!’…

"Yes, it was a memorable moment - the whole year was memorable because I knew that it was also my dream to go to the Olympic Games.

"Even if I was up against my brother, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.

"What’s good is that the story had a happy ending.”

You mean you were only enemies at the time you were racing and that otherwise, things were just the same between you?

“Actually, Patrice, because he is five years older than me, had the good idea of suggesting that, to avoid problems, we should go our separate ways a little bit during the competitions.

"Because we always shared a room…

“It was the right decision because immediately that meant there was less tension between us.

“During competitions we stayed apart and may the best man win.”

Did it make things any easier that he had already won an Olympic medal?

“Certainly, yes.

“Even so his objective had been to win at Sydney, so it was still tough because he was capable of doing that.

“No, it was tough, but we did a further four years in these conditions because Patrice continued until 2004.

“For four years we kept going.

“We were in the French team together in 2001, in 2002, in 2003, in the World Championships and once again in 2004: another race-off.

“Except that time there were two places and he unfortunately finished third.

“So it was difficult.”

It must have been hard on your parents too.

“Yes, for our mum it was hard.

“For our big brother too, because I have another brother.

“He tried to manage things, to provide a link to make sure things went well.

“He organised little moments en famille when we were there so we could talk about something other than canoeing.

“The whole family made sure that things went well.”

Did Patrice come to Sydney?

“He wasn’t there; my parents came from 2004 onwards.”

You ended up winning of course, what do you remember about the moment of victory?

"At Sydney I put myself under a huge amount of pressure to win because I said to myself, ‘Since you eliminated your brother, you do not have the right to fail’.

"I did think about that: I can’t allow myself to perform any old how.

"Vis à vis my brother, I knew that he could have won, so after eliminating him, my only objective was to win.

"I really went all out to win…

"He gave me two or three pieces of advice, saying, for example, ‘Watch out for the media’.

"In spite of his disappointment, he gave me good advice.

"I remember I think it was the first phone call after my victory, someone handed me a phone and it was my brother.

"So it was a good moment – and a bit of a family affair.

"He organised a party in France so the fans could follow my race.

"So he wasn’t thinking in the slightest of revenge; on the contrary, he was my biggest supporter.

"He also organised my return.”

So when you won, you felt joy, but also huge satisfaction?

"Yes, and even a bit of relief because I had been afraid.”

Tony Estanguet retained his Olympic title at Athens 2004 ©Getty Images
Tony Estanguet retained his Olympic title at Athens 2004 ©Getty Images

Tony also won gold in 2004 in Athens, when he says the pressure of being favourite was tougher than the rivalry with Patrice, but in 2008 in Beijing, something went wrong.

"For me it was really a problem of preparation strategy," he recalls candidly.

"For the two years running up to Beijing, I wanted to control everything, to master everything, to write down exactly what I had to do.

"I had decided to use a difficult, fast boat.

"At no time - even though there were some warning signs – did I say to myself, ‘You must change course, make adaptations, facilitate, do things differently.’

"I said to myself, ‘Look, you’ve done it twice, you can do it a third time.…

"When the moment comes I’ll get there.

"Whereas on previous occasions, when there was a problem, it was immediately Red Alert, we must find a solution, we must change things.

"For Beijing that didn’t happen."

He failed to reach the final and contemplated retirement.

"I said I’m going to stop for three months.

"At the end of those three months I said to myself, ‘It would be such a pity to quit like that; I want to come back; I want to start again; I like it; the story isn’t over; I’ve still got unfinished business - and I want to work with my brother.

"So from the start of 2009 my brother became my coach.

"That was great because we worked together for three years, with another coach I like a lot, there were three of us.

"My brother was very motivated by the challenge of coaching me, of helping me progress, of making a comeback and going on to win together.

"And we won two world titles in 2009 and 2010; the European Championship in 2011 and the Olympics in 2012.

"Each year we won a big title, so it’s a great story…

"In 2011, I won the European championship, but I was 16th in the world championship.

“I messed up a bit in the worlds, so that was a little warning sign.

"But afterwards, we knew how to react.

"We knew how to come back and win again in 2012.

"It was chouette, super.”

How, in summary, I wondered, would he compare his rivalry with Patrice and the other great rivalry of his career – that with the great Slovak canoeist Michal Martikán, of whom it was once said, "If anyone can, Martikán can’?"

Tony Estanguet retired after winning his third Olympic gold medal at London 2012 ©Getty Images
Tony Estanguet retired after winning his third Olympic gold medal at London 2012 ©Getty Images

"What I found difficult with my brother was that there was often disappointment,” Estanguet replies.

"Even when I won, there was always a bit of disappointment, whereas with Martikán, when I won I was happy."

A small laugh. "Completely."

He goes on:

"With my brother, there was always this small residue of disappointment.

"At the same time I owe him everything.

"It was him who gave me his equipment to begin with; he gave me advice; he helped me progress.

"It’s him at the end of the day who enabled me to progress so fast.

"He was never so much of a rival that he didn’t want to help me.

"He always helped me.

"For him I think it was difficult to do, but he did it."