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France revels in golden sport days

France's summer gloom, the result of rising unemployment and bad weather, was temporarily lifted by the country's best Olympic results for 70 years at the games in Atlanta: 37 medals, 15 of them gold, and fifth place in the medals' table.

The success, 36 years after France's disastrous showing at the Rome games, is the result of state financial aid, concentration on certain sports and the involvement of salaried civil servants in 73 sport federations. But in schools, although pupils get more time for PE than in the UK, sport is still a low priority.

Several disciplines have been targeted for years, a policy that bore fruit in Atlanta. Seven medals were won in fencing, nine in cycling and six in judo. In these sports, promising youngsters are identified early on, and selected at regional and national level.

In swimming, gymnastics and athletics, the record is less impressive. France won three athletics golds - two going to Marie-Jose Perec in the women's 200 and 400 metres, the other to pole-vaulter Jean Galfione, but there was little strength in depth.

But medals were won in sports as various as wrestling, canoeing, riding and shooting. French Olympic officials draw an irritated comparison between high-profile public favourites, such as tennis players classed outside the world top 20, and unknown Olympic champions who only caught the public's attention after years in competition during which they had been ignored.

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