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Interviewing an Olympic champion is something special and always delivers thought-provoking words and ideas; it’s a unique kind of education. Following the stories of the first 29 Olympic champions in the series, winners from 1976 to 2021, we now share the words of Thierry Rey, Olympic champion in Moscow in 1980 in the -60 kg category.
Thierry Rey, Olympic champion. Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

We introduced the statistics, the almost impossible feat and the question in our first article in the series, which can be found here:

A reminder of the question:

It could be said that to be in the company of an Olympic judo champion is to be presented with someone whom has reached an absolute pinnacle, a ceiling which cannot be surpassed; there is nowhere further to ascend in the world of sport. We often find Olympic champions speaking with freedom and certainty, unafraid to share an opinion, speaking of their lives and journeys with confidence. For many we feel there is peace, and that can be magnetic and inspiring.

So the question is, did they become Olympic champion because of that character or did they become that person having won the Olympic gold medal?

“I wanted to be Olympic champion from the very beginning, even before I was a cadet. I was competing at the Stade de Coubertin in the French Championships for Benjamins (-13) and I felt I had my first big experience there, a taste, and then later I was selected by France for cadets. I was in the national team and I already wanted it."

The 1980 -60 kg final: Rey (FRA) vs Rodriguez (CUB). Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

"When I was young, my dad told me I could be Olympic champion; it took some time to believe it, to believe that I had the right stuff.

I went to INSEP at the age of 18 and then won the national senior title. I felt that the -60 kg category was for me, it was for young men, judo with speed. It was a new weight category, the 1980 Games was the first to have an -60 kg category.

I was in the team with Angelo Parisi, Jean-Luc Rougé and many more huge names and they made me strong of spirit. I was so proud to be with them and I felt it was possible. The French men’s team was so strong then that I had to believe it. I was world champion 6 months before the Games, winning that worlds at 20 years old and then the Olympics at 21."

Thierry Rey, -60 kg gold; Bernard Tchoullouyan, -78 kg bronze; Angelo Parisi, +95 kg gold. Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

"After winning the Olympic gold, I did not really change but when you touch your dream, especially for an athlete, it is so freeing, you touch inner peace. I was still chasing the European title though because I was the first French person to have world and Olympic titles and with those already earned it seemed impossible not to have the European title too. I went up to -65 kg and that’s where I won the title. I always felt that after that I had a sort of tattoo for all my life, a lifelong achievement. All people speak with that in mind when they see me and I know it is always present. It changes how people are but it doesn’t change me. I have lived a lot of life now, not only a judo one, so I’m sure I have changed but perhaps not because of this one simple moment."

Winning Olympic gold. Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.
Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

"Everyone expects we must confirm this achievement with how we live after it and this is not a trivial thing. It’s good but it’s also hard and complicated. We have 40, 50, 60 years to live after winning this medal and we have to always live up to it so it is difficult, good but difficult."

Thierry Rey's Olympic gold medal.

"It is such a small medal but even with 44 years passed since that day, it is actually so big, it means something, the work.”

The French Olympic judo team for the 1980 Olympic Games. Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

Thierry Rey continues to stay close to judo and 44 years after becoming Olympic champion he serves as Special Advisor to Paris 2024.