In Like the Wind issue #8 runner and author Pat Butcher told the story of a man whose running destiny would forever be intertwined with perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time, Emil Zatopek. Alain Mimoun spent much of his career in the shadow of the all-conquering Zatopek. But that should not take away from his extraordinary achievements, especially in the face of the political turmoil that his native Algeria faced under French rule.
From The Destiny of Alain Mimoun, Butcher takes up the story:
“17 October, 1961, the French security forces took summary revenge on Algerians living in Paris. It was the height of the war of independence in Algeria, and the French Army was being harassed and bombed out of the country during one of the last colonial confrontations between Europe and Africa. The Front de la Libération Nationale in Algiers had made a call for a peaceful demonstration through Paris, to protest the racist curfew imposed by the Prefect of Police, Maurice Papon. Thirty thousand people, many of them families, took to the streets.
But the police fired on the marchers, and 15,000 people were arrested. They were herded through streets, corralled on Metro platforms, and held in stadia and police cells around the capital. They were abused, beaten and tortured. Some were executed, and the bodies thrown into the Seine. Papon’s actions were defended by the President of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle. The 300 deaths are an estimate, since only now, 50 years later are questions being aired in France about the events of that night. In the interim, the incident has been as “forgotten” as the Chilean “desaparacidos” of the Pinochet era.
A few months after that massacre, de Gaulle, the wartime resistance hero and legendary patriot, paid a visit to the Institut National du Sport in the Bois de Vincennes, on the eastern edge of Paris. Thrust into the front line to greet him was a man half his size, and then almost as famous, a man who is still described as France’s greatest Olympian – the “Athlete of the Century”.
Alain Mimoun was Algerian born and bred, his original name was Ali. Confronted by “Big Charlie”, as de Gaulle was unceremoniously known to his few critics, Mimoun drew himself up to his full height, just about up to Big Charlie’s jaw, and threw his best military salute.
“Mon General” he intoned fiercely “Alain Mimoun! Born in Algeria, but forever French.”
Alain Mimoun is the most successful athlete in French history. He won an Olympic gold medal and three silvers, and holds the record for the most national titles and for the highest number of selections for the national athletics squad. In addition, he would eventually be awarded France’s highest honour, the Légion d’Honneur, for his bravery during the Second World War. Little surprise then that he should be voted the “French Athlete of the Twentieth Century” by Athlétime magazine.
Yet, even allowing for the restrictive nature of amateur athletics in the 1950s, how could Mimoun have returned from his crowning glory, winning the Olympic gold medal in the marathon in the Melbourne Olympics, and gone back to sharing two rooms without water and sanitation, with his wife and newly born child, in a rundown Paris suburb?
For the same reason perhaps that, in a career spanning 50 years, and with numerous streets, parks, stadia, squares and sports centres around France named after him, there has never been a substantial biographical work produced on Mimoun.
The reason and its inevitable corollary were suggested recently (and separately) to me by leading journalists on Libération, one of France’s most serious journals, and by an Algerian national athletics coach – “To the French, Mimoun is Algerian. To the Algerians, Mimoun is French.”
You can read the full story in LtW#8 – still available in limited numbers in the shop.
And these two films capture both the greatest moment in Mimoun’s running career (and the moment he finally emerged from Zatopek’s shadow) and his life’s story as he told it to a French television station.