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Stéphane Diagana has had a passion for running since he joined an athletics club at the age of 10. The urge to win came later.
“Success was not really the starting point for me. It was more about feeling good with friends and the passion for running,” he says. “I felt the same in the schoolyard when I was young as I felt on the track in the world championships – it was like flying. For the first 10 years I didn’t care about being a champion; it was just about having fun every day, trying to improve. And then I discovered competition and success.”
A string of successes followed good results at the 1990 European Championships, when he was 21. The twin peaks were gold medals in the 400m hurdles at both the Athens World Championships in 1997 – the first Frenchman to win the title – and the 2002 European championships in Munich. He has held the European record in the event (47.37 seconds) since 1995 and remains a household name in France through his TV commentary work.
Even from his early 20s, however, Diagana kept his success in perspective and thought about a career beyond athletics. “Sometimes sportsmen feel a lot of pressure because they need to be winning, otherwise they are nothing,” he says. “I didn’t want to live my sport that way. I wanted to win, but I didn’t need to.”
So it was that in 1998, aged 29 and with a feeling that the best years of his athletics career were likely to be behind him, Diagana went back to school to take a masters in management at ESCP Europe in Paris, one of the country’s top business schools. He wanted something else to think about while he was training, he says, but his main motivation was an ambition to start a business after his athletics career was over.
As a top-level professional athlete, eight years older on average than his classmates, his lifestyle was inevitably different. “Maybe they would party twice a week, and for me it was twice a year at the maximum,” he says. “But we worked together on projects, and it was good for me to escape the narrow field of sports.”
In fact, he believes some of the lessons were more relevant to him than to his classmates, not only because of his entrepreneurial ambitions but also because he had already started a company to handle his sponsorship deals. They, in contrast, were more likely to be seeking jobs in finance or marketing for big companies.
Diagana took five and a half years to complete the course on a part-time basis, with the time he devoted to athletics varying to suit the sporting calendar, and work for ESCP ranging from nine to 20 hours a week but averaging about 12.
Graduation in 2004 coincided with his retirement from athletics after a string of injuries throughout his career that had curtailed his Olympic dreams to just one appearance – fourth place in the 400m hurdles at Barcelona in 1992.
He is quite philosophical about that: “If I had won one gold in the Olympics, maybe I would have said for years after, ‘Ah, I missed the second one’ … so I have no regrets at all.
“And I think I had a lot of injuries because I worked so hard to offset the talents that were not top-level. Sure, I had talent – you need some – but not like Usain Bolt [the current world and Olympic record holder in the 100m and 200m] or all those guys you see winning at youth or under-20 world championships.”
Diagana was aware that, as a sporting celebrity, he was very marketable in France, which would create opportunities. But he remained focused and selective.
“When I retired, some people asked me to start a brand because they knew my name, but I said, ‘OK, that has already been done by many people,’ and it wasn’t really interesting for me,” he says. “I thought, ‘What can I do differently with my name? What can I change, if I can change something?’ Sport is my background, so I wanted to do something in which sport can bring benefits to society.”
This is where the ESCP course enabled him to create his own opportunities, rather than simply respond to the media and other offers that tend to get thrown at sporting heroes after they have hung up their running shoes or football boots.
Even during his time at the school, Diagana was considering a venture linking sport and health, but since then awareness has grown about the dangers of sedentary lifestyles and the healthy effects of activity for disease prevention. In his last year at ESCP, a course about starting a business showed him that he ticked many of the boxes in terms of his credibility and network.
Then, two years ago, he was asked by the French sports minister to be ambassador for a national programme promoting nutrition and physical activity.
“I got to know many doctors and professors through that, and realised what an opportunity there was in such a business,” says Diagana. “It’s business, but for society I think it’s really important to have such programmes for people.”
Finally, three years ago Diagana, his partner, former heptathlete Odile Lesage, and their three young sons moved to a small town near Nice. The couple had identified the south of France as the ideal place to found their venture, with its sunny climate, good transport links and 2m people living in the city and surrounding towns.
The aim, says Diagana, is as much to have training facilities on the French Riviera for top-level athletes as it is to provide programmes for local people that target chronic disease through physical activity and nutrition. “It’s the same challenge, whether you want to be world champion or get rid of excess weight,” he says.
The same careful planning and hard work that he and his coach put in over seven or eight years to get him to the top is now being replicated as the project develops. A feasibility study began in February, which should produce results by the end of this year, he says. South African sport and health businesses have been used as benchmarks, and visits made to others in Madrid, while he will also study similar companies in the UK.
Through his involvement in the bureaucracy of athletics after his retirement, Diagana has sharpened the political skills that he will need to run the business and deal with partners such as insurance companies. He was the first president of a league for French professional athletes, an offshoot of the French Athletics Federation, and sat on the athlete committee at the World Anti-Doping Agency, based in Montreal.
But apart from some TV and lecturing work, Diagana is now focusing on his business venture. “It’s at the beginning, but we’re optimistic,” he says. “With all the reports about child obesity and the sports programmes available for them, I am sure there are many things we can do.
“How big it can grow, I don’t know. But I’m sure it’s a really emerging business, because insurance companies know that we can’t go on paying out when people are ill, and then paying and paying. We must pay for people to remain healthy as long as possible.”
Diagana had his own health scare this year after a bicycle accident near his home left him with serious head injuries that could have cost him his life. But little more than a month later he held a press conference in Vence, his home town, to stress that he was well – although he admitted he had been “lucky”.
After all the injuries that bedevilled his athletics career, it will take more than a knock like that to deflect Diagana from his new plans, which he is pursuing with the same enthusiasm he once showed on the running track.
Hall of fame
Stéphane Diagana is not the only French athlete to have attended ESCP, which offers athletes opportunities to study while competing. Other students have included Romanian-born swimmer Roxana Mărăcineanu in 2003 (the 1998 world champion in 200m backstroke and an Olympic silver medallist in 2000) and Anne-Lise Touya (the 2001 world sabre champion) in 2005. ESCP now has an Olympic champion fencer among its MiM students – Erik Boisse, who won gold at Athens in 2004 and at the 2006 World Fencing Championships in Turin.