SAINT-LAURENT BLANGY, France (Reuters) - With four gold medals in pocket from the 2012 Olympics, France is also reaping euros from training camps a Eurostar-ride from London that are treating world athletes to frogs’ legs and gleaming new sports facilities along with British-style rain.
Hundreds of teams have piled into the humdrum port of Calais and surrounding area, a two-hour dash by train under the English Channel, to take advantage of high-tech training facilities that are available for free and away from the hustle of London.
The grey skies and summer drizzle of northern France mean athletes from as far away as Colombia and South Africa get to acclimatize to the British weather while also sampling some genuine French cuisine.
“The food is delicious. I’ve even tried frogs’ legs, and a number of other things I can’t remember the names of,” Uzbek sprint canoeist Vadim Menkov told Reuters, training in the sleepy town of Saint-Laurent Blangy.
Buttery croissants were unfortunately off his training menu, he added.
In July alone, in the countdown to the Games, some fifty teams trained in the Pas-de-Calais region, including Japanese gymnasts, Colombian BMX bikers and even British gymnasts trying to escape the media eye.
While in Britain athletes have had to pay for training facilities, sometimes helped by grants from the London Olympic organizers, Pas-de-Calais has offered its camps for free, betting the region would benefit by putting up and feeding the sporting delegations.
For a region blighted by high unemployment, getting in on the Games has brought valuable publicity along with the revenue from hotel stays and restaurant bills.
The tiny town of Saint Omer says it has generated an extra 1 million euros in revenues in the first six months of the year, largely because of the Olympic initiative.
Local officials’ hopes of luring Olympic ticket-holders to stay in the Calais area, along what they dub “the Opal coast”, and whip to London for events have been disappointed however, with hotels reporting few Olympic tourists.
When the councilor in charge of the Calais area, Dominique Dupilet, came up his idea of cashing in on the 2012 Games after Paris lost its bid to host them, the British media sneered at the cheeky French for muscling in on their sporting terrain.
Seven years and 115 million euros ($141.63 million) of investment later, the area is reaping the rewards.
Nine sports facilities have been extended and renovated since 2005, and three built from scratch, including an 8.4 million euro gymnastics base in the town of Arques, which athletes say is Europe’s biggest and one of the best in the world.
Roger Mortier, director of the Hotel du Golf near Arques, says the influx of sporting delegations has brought him 100,000 euros of extra revenue since the start of the year, while looking after the athletes has lifted staff morale.
“The staff have been really proud of getting to see the French basketball team and other sportsmen. Even the British gymnasts have trained here, which was an ironic touch,” he said.
In the nearby town of Lumbres more than half the Olympic BMXers have trained at the brand-new track set in the rolling fields and hills of northern France, taking advantage of the peace to focus ahead of the race of a lifetime.
Relentless drizzle halted at least one training session for the Colombian, Australian and Italian BMX riders for fear of injury on the steep starting ramp — a reminder their Olympic experience will be subject to Britain’s changeable weather.
A more acclimatized Belgian struggled on, his trainer stoically mopping rainwater from the potentially perilous ramp.
“At least we can train and feel like we’re in London here,” said Italian BMXer Manuel de Vechi.
Weather aside, hoteliers say they have failed to convince ticket holders that Calais is a suburb of the London Olympics.
Mortier at the Hotel du Golf in Lumbres says he’s given up on luring ticket holders. “Let’s face it, we’re not in England and you’ve still got to get across the Channel,” he said, but added that the Olympics had brought some unexpected bookings.
“We’ve got people here trying to get away from it all in London and looking for somewhere to have a holiday,” he laughed. ($1 = 0.8120 euros)
Additional reporting by Johnny Cotton, Editing by Nigel Hunt