There are journalists looking for angles to cover the Paris 2024 Games, but Valentin Houinato is not one of them. Since September 2023, this reporter at Radio France has found the subject to follow for this event: himself. Almost every week, he tells France Inter about his delicate preparation to try to qualify for the Olympic Games. A three-minute dive into the soul of a judoka tormented by the challenge of a lifetime.

This young man of 27, with a smile more constant than his morale, speaks freely and without complexes. On a daily basis, in his column – entitled “La Prépa” – or on the tatami mats, Valentin Houinato does not cheat with his emotions, speaking frankly about his moods and about Africa, his other continent. Indeed, “Val” or “Valou”, as he is nicknamed, grew up in Seine-et-Marne – his native land, that of his mother – but has chosen, since 2022, to fight (in – 81 kg ) for his father’s country, Benin. The French team was, for him, inaccessible. “I think I was number fifteen French, those selected [at the Olympics] are in the top five,” he explains.

“I’m still overdrawn.”

Benin was the memory of summer vacations when he was a child. His “town” is in Vendée, where his grandparents live, whom he cherishes. Being binational therefore offers an unexpected chance to realize your ultimate dream. “I was in the stands at the London Olympics in 2012, I was like crazy,” he remembers. For me, the goal was to make the Games above all. Luxembourg would have offered me something, I would have gone there too. I only think of Paris, of the opening ceremony, of my grandparents in front of France 2. That’s all I can think of. »

For the moment, the path to the ephemeral Grand Palais, where the judo events will take place from July 27 to August 3, is a grueling journey. “I just wanted to tell about my daily life. It turns out that, in fact, there are a lot of struggles, so I talk about a lot of struggles,” he emphasizes.

How can you contradict him? The lives of a freelancer and a high-level athlete don’t mix well. It’s difficult to make yourself available to follow the news and train tirelessly at the same time. “I keep working because I have to pay the rent,” he says. The rent, but also his mental trainer, his psychomotor skills classes, Brazilian jiu-jitsu (to improve on the ground), or even the kimonos (150 euros each), plane tickets and hotel nights. “I’m still overdrawn,” he whispers.

To save on his travel costs, Valentin Houinato makes multiple stopovers when he goes to Cameroon or Qatar to play international tournaments (twelve since his debut with Benin) or for training in Tokyo. “Three or four times” he slept in airports. The Beninese Judo Federation does not always have the means to support it. Traveling in Africa has a cost, and not just financial. You also have to know how to manage competitions that are sometimes poorly organized.

“I’ve been walking on a tightrope for months.”

“The taxis are late. They tell you “there is no restaurant tonight, you will eat tomorrow,” he explains. You are facing people who don’t know what high level is. »A question of means? He gets carried away: “Cleaning a room is not a question of resources. I could throw away my white kimono after the Niger Open, it was irrecoverable. Sometimes it’s not professional. For example, you see someone 100 grams overweight at a weigh-in and you hear the official say “it’s no big deal.” And then you discover that they are from the same country. » But the judoka forcefully contests the idea that it would be easier to fight in Africa: “The level is very strong, there is potential and we can do better. »

For more than a year, Valentin Houinato has been juggling between his work, training, the tournaments he plays alone, without a coach on the tatami to help him, his injuries and the need to find money – he has a small sponsor and launched an online prize pool. All this exhausts him physically and nervously, sometimes to the point of tears. A doctor told him he was “in cognitive overload” and prescribed antidepressants. “My goal is not to break down,” he admits. I’ve been walking on a tightrope for months and it has to hold until July 30 [date of his test]. »

Valentin Houinato plans to hang on: 70th in the world in his category, he is “for the moment qualified for the Games”, he assures. But he will only know on June 23, the end date of the qualification period, if he will indeed participate in the Paris 2024 Games.