“I’m delighted to have you.” Leaning on his cane outside his front door, 98-year-old Charles Coste welcomes us to his apartment in Bois-Colombes (Hauts-de-Seine) with a broad smile. And not in vain, after being somewhat forgotten by the world of sport, he is happy to find today the light of the winners. He is the only living French Olympic champion who has not been decorated with the Legion of Honor.
The procedure was only automated in 1952, four years after its title. On Wednesday, April 16, at the Paris 2024 Organizing Committee headquarters in Saint-Denis, this anomaly will be repaired. Olympic champion in team pursuit in track cycling at the London Games in 1948, Charles Coste will be decorated, 74 years after his title, by Tony Estanguet, president of the Organizing Committee of the Paris 2024 Games.
“I am very happy, especially because it is Mr. Estanguet who gives me the Legion of Honor because I greatly admire his sporting career. It will be a wonderful moment. I dedicate it to my three colleagues, Pierre Adam, Serge Blusson, Fernand Decanali, because there were four of us on the podium. I haven’t forgotten them.” testifies Charles Coste, already moved a few days before the ceremony.
Crowned in London at the Herne Hill velodrome (southeast of the city), the Habs even managed the feat of beating the favorites for the title, who were none other than the English. “We had raced the track a number of times in London so we knew it very well. We even set the track record early in 1948.” recalls without hesitation the former captain of the France team, still proud of this achievement. “I knew we were going to win, and the joy when we crossed the finish line was immense”, says Charles Coste leafing through a thick book with black covers.
This book covers his entire sports career. Inside, hundreds of photos and press clippings, ranging from short stories to glowing articles about his rising career, transport the reader to the late 1940s and the decade that followed.
A few pages later, Charles Coste pauses and points to the photo of the 1948 Olympic podium. “The podium was very small. We were the four tight in the box, “ he laughs. His only regret: not having had the right to his Marseillaise on D-Day. “At that time, they told us that they had not found the disc. But the French camp was still singing a Marseillaise a cappella”, he smiled.
Leaning on his cane again, Charles Coste guides us to the “medal room” at the back of his apartment. If some photos of him, during his cycling years, decorate the room, the exhibition of his exploits remains discreet. “It is modest compared to what he has achieved,” slips Yvette, his wife.
“London was still under the rubble of the German bombing and there were still the ration coupons. It was still quite a difficult time.”Charles Coste, Olympic team pursuit champion at the London Olympics in 1948
on franceinfo: sport
Above the desk, a glass frame sits proud. Behind the glass all her charms gained during his career are exposed. In the middle, the Olympic medallion quickly catches the eye. At that time, the medals were delivered in a box and not around the neck. In it we can see the traditional goddess of victory and the inscription “XIV OLYMPICS LONDON 1948”. “It is not gold, but gilded silver, because at that time we had just come out of the war, and there was not much silver,” he says, pointing to his medal.
In fact, these 1948 Games were the first since the end of World War II, in 1945. Initially planned in Tokyo, they were reallocated a few months earlier in London. “The Games were somewhat austere, he remember. The athletes did not have an Olympic village. Therefore, they were housed in military camps. “In our case, we moved to a US Air Force training camp, which had served during the war and was later repurposed for the Games,” says the native of Ollioules (Var).
With his Olympic medal in his pocket, Charles Coste turned professional in 1949. “I waited to do the Games before I turned professional. (you had to be a fan to participate) following the advice of my manager Paul Ruinart, who one day told me: ‘when you are an Olympic champion, you will be one all your life’. Today I see that he was right.” slides Charles Coste, with his mischievous smile.
In his first year as a professional, he won the Grand Prix des Nations -140 km on the road-, the biggest French race of the time after Paris-Roubaix. “I was aiming for second place, because I expected Fausto Coppi (one of the greatest cyclists in the history of cycling with two victories in the Tour de France, five in the Tour of Italy and a world champion title on the road) he wins it. Unfortunately for him, I was tired that day and I won.” explains the Olympic champion.
This was followed by a fourth place in Paris-Roubaix in 1950, then a stage in the Tour of North Africa and two stages in the Vuelta Argentina in 1952, before winning Paris-Limoges in 1953. “the longest French race with its 340 km”, says Charles Coste. The Tour de France, on the other hand, never smiled on him: after a withdrawal in 1950 the day before the start due to an abscess in his throat, he was forced to withdraw, always during the first stages, in 1952 and 1957. .
In 1959 he decided to end his career and began a new one away from cycling, within the Blanchisserie de Grenelle where he would spend his entire career. “But I always kept riding my bike for pleasure with my loved ones, and I followed the main cycling races,” ensures. still today, “no one escapes him” confirms his wife Yvette.
His passion has remained intact for more than 80 years, as has his pride in representing France. “I have represented my country in many competitions and many countries. So even today when I hear The marsellesa, I still have chills.” book Charles Coste, which will celebrate its centenary in 2024. Will the Paris 2024 committee pay tribute to it during the opening ceremony? “At the moment, nothing has been mentioned. But I would like to.” concludes who, 74 years after his title, still vibrates so much at the call of the Olympic Games.