“In the big bath”, on France 3: from the “Tournesol” swimming pools to the Olympic pools

For some, their shape resembles an amanita, while others see it as a ladybug or a flying saucer. The round plastic structure of the “Sunflower” pools is actually inspired by that of the sea urchin. Gray, red, blue or yellow in color, their ability to open like a fan, following the sun, gave them their name.

The idea, ingenious and inexpensive, led to the architect Bernard Schoeller (1929-2020) being chosen to lead the “1,000 swimming pools” program, wanted by Charles de Gaulle in 1969, after two dramatic accidents. By increasing the national park from 200 to 1,200 indoor swimming pools, the State’s objective is to allow every child to learn to swim.

Unprecedented in French sport, this political will will also allow the nation to shine in international competitions. A few weeks before the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, the “Tournesol” swimming pools and those who frequented them serve as the common thread for this simple and fair documentary on one hundred and fifty years of French swimming.

Among the historians, athletes and lifeguards who share their memories of their first swims here, Alain Bernard (gold medal in the 100m freestyle in Beijing in 2008, as well as in London in 2012 in the 4 × 100m relay freestyle swimming) returns for the occasion to the Aubagne basin (Bouches-du-Rhône), which now bears his name. Then the former Minister of Sports Roxana Maracineanu (2018-2020), a regular, as a child, at the Blois swimming pool, before becoming, in January 1998 in Perth, the first world champion in the history of French swimming on 200m backstroke – a 14-year-old teenager then wrote him a note: she signed Laure Manaudou.

Swimming across Paris

Franck Esposito’s story is particularly stimulating. He recounts how, as a teenager, he left at 6 a.m. to meet his coach at the “Tournesol” in Six-Fours-les-Plages (Var). “I knew my competitors were swimming in nice university pools,” he says: he won bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Games, in the 200m butterfly. Delving back into these young years brings a scent of nostalgia, counterbalanced by the sometimes comical choice of archives. In particular the sequence showing the competitors of the Petit Parisien swimming across Paris, in the 1920s. And the astonishing ones, of the “dry courses”.

In fact, in the 19th century, when three thousand to five thousand deaths were reported annually from drowning in France, swimming became compulsory in 1879 for boys – girls could continue to drown. But these are lessons given in class. Children, lying face down on a table or standing, simply learn the breaststroke movements. “Courses obviously totally ineffective,” notes a historian.

Although there are now around two thousand indoor swimming pools in France, these are larger and are used more for playing than for swimming – the film evokes a “new philosophy of relationship with water”. According to Public Health France, however, 16.3% of French people do not know how to swim “at all” (2016 figures), and the number of deaths from accidental drowning cannot fall below a thousand per year.