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Marlene Harnois – A modern-day warrior with an exceptional human spirit

Marlene Harnois - A modern-day warrior with an exceptional human spirit

Champion for Peace and Taekwondo Olympic medalist, Marlene Olivia Harnois is one of those people who truly have a positive impact in the world. She was elevated to the rank of Knight of the National Order of Merit by the President of France and she is representing Monaco headquartered, Peace and Sport International Organisation, placed under the High Patronage of H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco.

Originally born in Montreal, Canada, Marlene Harnois, earned an MBA Degree with honours from the International University of Monaco. She followed an incredible journey that led her to the Principality of Monaco. Hers is an inspiring path filled with spectacular sporting and philanthropist achievements. 

As a Champion for Peace representing the Peace and Sport International Organisation, founded by Pentathlon World Champion and Olympic Medalist, Joel Bouzou and placed under the High Patronage of H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, Marlene is committed to promote the positive values of sport. She is also devoted to contribute to development and peace across the globe, in areas affected by poverty and social instability. 

Marlene is also two-times European Champion, World University Champion, a World Taekwondo Championship medalist and has reached the world number one ranking. 

Driven by the desire to give back to society and inspire youth in the realisation of their dreams, in 2014, she founded an NGO in Abidjan to contribute to the development of sport and education in West Africa. She then mentored two young taekwondo prodigies on their Olympic journey and contributed to the historical victories of Ivory Coast at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, when Cheick Cissé won the first Olympic gold medal and Ruth Gbagbi became the first woman Olympic medalist. Together, they have since inaugurated social libraries to promote education and support literacy class, in addition to leading field actions to further develop sport across the country.

Marlene Harnois - A modern-day warrior with an exceptional human spirit

Following this success, Marlene realized the positive impact sport could have on an entire nation by uniting its populations, inspiring younger generations and achieving sustainable goals. Therefore, she launched, in 2017, the Caravan for Peace in partnership with Peace and Sport, to support local sustainable initiatives in emerging countries, such as inaugurating water fountains near sport fields.

In 2018, during the celebration of the International Day for Philosophy at the UNESCO, she was announced as the Ambassador of the International center for youth philosophy “PhiloJeunes”.

She is also a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee, the European Taekwondo Union, and a board member of the French Olympian Association. 

Marlene discovered Taekwondo at the age of four with her older sister Stephanie. They both enrolled in a neighbourhood club located on the south shore of Montreal. 

My mother always encouraged me and my sister to try out various sports,” – remembers back Marlene. – “Swimming, skiing, and equestrian were among the top choices, however, she strongly believed that martial arts were also an educational tool as it teaches positive values of respect and can be used to foster discipline. I instantly felt a good and positive atmosphere at the Taekwondo Club which is a very important aspect because it is all about the environment we evolve in and the energy that connects us with others.

Marlene earned her black belt at age nine and quickly stood out at provincial and national levels. In her youth, she also won competitions in other sports including a Quebec Championship in fencing (foil), handball, as well as in several snowboarding competitions.

Were your parents worried that you started with a fighting sport?

No, because Taekwondo is not only about fighting, it is a martial art built on respect of others that also teaches self-defense and drives self-confidence. These were the values that my parents encouraged me to embrace.

Did you ever fight against your sister?

Oh, yes. Taekwondo was our getaway to handle our childhood conflicts,” – laughs Marlene. – “My sister is two years older, so basically, we were almost the same range. We had  local competitions in which she often won. However, this always motivated me, to train even harder, constantly improve and get even better.

In 1997, in her first participation, Marlene won the Canadian Junior National Taekwondo Championships. After three years of consecutive winning of the National Championship, she made her debut on the international scene and won the 1999 US Open. 

At age 13, Marlene was selected to represent Canada at the 2000 World Junior Championships in Killarney, Ireland, and won the bronze medal. The Canadian martial arts prodigy immediately gained international attention.

I started to go to international competitions and I was recognised at a very young age. I was only 14 when I was invited to France as part of the International Francophone Solidarity program.

The French Taekwondo Federation (FFTDA) offered Marlene the opportunity to join the French training centre for the 2001-2002 sports season. The then 14-year-old Marlene decided to move to Europe to reach her goals. In France, she trained at the Aix-en-Provence training center (CREPS) with Pascal Gentil (twice Olympic medalist) and Mamedy Doucara (welterweight World Champion 2001). She won the Francophone World Cup and received the title of “MVP, Best Fighter” and later transferred to the National Institute of Sports (INSEP), in Paris.

What was the hardest part for you during this time?

For me, being 14 years old at that time and leaving my family behind in Canada was very challenging but they were always very supportive of my dreams despite the distance. I was also fortunate to be welcomed by a Monégasque family here in Monaco to spend weekends and school vacations. They still play a very important role in my life to this day and especially now that I live here.”

How did you keep contact with your family in Canada?

Back then it was much more difficult because Internet access and mobile phone was not as widespread as it is today. Also, we had to overcome the challenges with the time zones. I remember sending post cards. Nowadays, it’s way easier with technology to keep in touch on a daily basis and they love coming to visit at summer time.

Marlene’s commitment and hard work paid out as she won over 20 International Open Tournaments, an Olympic medal in London 2012, became a Two-Times European Champion, World University Champion, and has reached the number one World ranking. 

Was your sister proud of you for winning at the Olympics?

She was overwhelmed. She literally invited everyone she knew to see my fight and forced everyone else at her office to cheer for me,” – laughs Marlene. “She was happy for me and very proud. But my mom will always be my biggest fan, her house looks like a museum with all the Olympic memorabilia, trophies and Martial Art magazines about me,” – she says smiling.

And how did you experience the Olympics?

A dream come true. The whole experience has been a very intense journey driven by passion and incredible encounters. All the time and energy invested in training, and people who help you to get to that point. Participating in the Olympics is powerful and incredibly rewarding because it’s the final achievement of a life of hard work, devotion and sacrifices.

Marlene won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Summer Olympics. She beat Yeny Contreras (Chile) in the first round, followed by Hedaya Wahba (Egypt) in the quarter-finals. She then lost to Hou Yuzhuo (China) in the semi-finals. This enabled her to take part in the bronze medal repechage, where she beat Mayu Hamada (Japan) to earn her medal.

You lost in the semi-finals against Hou Yuzhuo (China). What went through your mind and how did you cope with the situation?

It was an emotional rollercoaster. I was so devastated when I lost because I had always beaten her previously, but I knew that I had to pick myself up and keep on fighting for a medal. It is a difficult moment because you cannot show any weakness while all you want to do is cry. At the same time you need to prepare for the biggest fight of your life and get back out there to win a medal. I just feel blessed that I found the strength to win my final match with a headkick in the last seconds, proudly waved my flag and stood on the podium.

What did you feel standing on the Olympic podium?

On the podium, your whole life flashes back. I kept thinking of all the challenges that I had to overcome, as well as all the support from the public and all the incredible people who contributed to this victory. Standing on the podium, I kept thinking that I wanted to give back to society and use my medal to have a positive impact on younger generations.  If I look back I can only tell you that my life was made up of so many unexpected paths but I am incredibly grateful for the outcome,” – remembers Marlene. 

At the Olympics, you represented France and not your home country, Canada. Why was that?

France has believed in me since I was 14 years old and has invested in me through the years, so I could become the greatest fighter and pursue my education at the National Sports Center (INSEP), so I will always feel thankful for the opportunity and proud to have honored their trust. However, the situation was very difficult and complex with the National coach at the time, and they wouldn’t release me to represent Canada. So, after the Olympics I ended my sporting career while I ranked number one in the world, and instead decided to engage in philanthropy and humanitarian work.

After the Olympics, you decided to retire and turn your attention to other activities.

I always believed in the power of sport for good and the values of Olympism. So, I decided to share my experience to inspire younger generations, firstly in schools of French Guyana, then in Africa.

Why Africa?

I guess I like challenges and solidarity is at the core of the Olympic movement,” – starts Marlene. – “You know, developed countries already have all the facilities, programs and financial support in place, therefore the impact I could have here is limited. What motivated me to go to Africa was to build something from scratch and allow young talents to emerge from communities affected by poverty or social instability.

What were the conditions when you first went there?

I first went to Senegal with a fellow Olympian and Champion for Peace, Balla Dieye to lead field actions and intervene in schools to promote education and sport. Then I went to Ivory Coast and was instantly struck when I met two young prodigies, Cheick Cissé and Ruth Gbagbi training barefoot with barely no equipment in a school backyard of a suburb in Abidjan. I was so impressed by their courage and determination, but also their natural talent and incredible skills. I immediately saw in them the potential to become Olympic Champions and I wanted to mentor them to develop their abilities. Of course, everyone laughed at me at first. Ivory Coast had never won a gold Olympic medal in any sport before. So, I was seen as a young naive, foreign girl with unrealistic expectations but when they saw my determination to fight against all odds by their sides to reach this goal, they all offered their support.

In 2014, Marlene founded in Abidjan, Ivory Coast the Fondation Heart Angel to promote education, culture, and sport in West Africa and support youth in the realisation of their dreams.

In only three years Cheick and Ruth both were qualified for the Olympic Games.

At the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, Ruth Gbagbi and Cheick Cissé, athletes supported by the foundation, won historical medals. The gold medalist in taekwondo 80 kilos, Cheick, became the first Olympic champion in the history of the Ivory Coast, and Ruth, bronze medalist in Taekwondo 67 kilos, became the first female Olympic medalist and World Champion the following year.

It is definitely one of the most beautiful day in my life. Their victories were so powerful, I am so grateful to have been part of their journey. The positive impact they now have on an entire generation and how they bring together a country that has been affected by civil wars is impressive.

All the girls are now looking up to Ruth and Cheick who have been able to donate Taekwondo equipment to develop sport nation-wide. The President, HEM Alasanne Ouattara has elevated them to the rank of Officers of the National Order and is fully supporting them towards the Tokyo Olympic Games. As Nelson Mandela said, “Sport has the power to change the world, unite, inspire and give hope where once there was only despair” and they proved it.

How do you compare this feeling to your Olympic medal?

This is way more powerful. I believe Olympics to be as much about the human adventure as the sporting performance. This reflects how sport can play an important role in society, promote dialogue, interreligious and intercultural understanding, bring people together and build peaceful communities around the world. I feel privileged to have had such an experience in my life.

In 2016, Marlene became a Champion for Peace, representing Peace and Sport, which is an international, neutral and independent organisation based in Monaco, promoting peace through the power of sport. Founded in 2007 by Modern Pentathlon Olympic Medalist and World Champion Joël Bouzou, Peace and Sport enjoys the High Patronage of H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco. 

After the great success with Ivory Coast, I wanted to engage on a global scale to be able to reach many different communities, even in refugee camps. Cheick and Ruth both rank number one in the world at the moment ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. They are also very committed to pursue what we started.

The International Organisation, Peace and Sport brings together and develops partnerships between the Peace (NGOs, UN Agencies, Academics), the Sport (Olympic Family, International Federations, National Olympic Committees, Athletes), and the political worlds to implement and ensure the sustainability of field programs. It maximizes the use of sport for development and peace, as well as leading social transformation in every area of the world affected by poverty or social instability.

Marlene Harnois - A modern-day warrior with an exceptional human spirit

Peace and Sport is built around four key pillars: Mobilize, Connect, Demonstrate, Advocate. The organisation takes concrete action to prove the federating, educational and social impact of sport through sport diplomacy initiatives and field programs with the support of a Champions for Peace club.

Few people know it, but H.S.H. Prince Albert II, the Sovereign Prince of the Principality of Monaco is a five times Olympian as a bobsleigh pilot under his family name Grimaldi and an IOC member. Late Grace Kelly’s father, John B. Kelly Sr. was a triple Olympic Champion in rowing. Princess Charlene was an Olympian and international swimmer. Therefore, for His Serene Highness, it came naturally to support the Peace and Sport organization.

H.S.H. Prince Albert II competed in bobsleigh at five consecutive Winter Olympics for Monaco, taking part in both the two-man and four-man events. In the two-man bobsleigh, His Highness finished 25th at the 1988 games in Calgary (Canada), 43rd at the 1992 games in Albertville (France), and 31st at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City (U.S.A.). 

In the four-man bobsleigh H.S.H. Prince Albert II finished 27th in 1992 in Albertville (France), 26th at the 1994 games in Lillehammer (Norway), and 28th at both the 1998 games in Nagano (Japan) and the 2002 games in Salt Lake City (U.S.A.).

The Sovereign Prince was the Monaco flag bearer in 1988, 1994, and 2002. 

Working under the High Patronage of Prince Albert II of Monaco, Marlene actively promotes peace through sport as well as takes part in field actions all over the world.

As a representative of the Champion for Peace Club, that gathers over 100 Champions representing almost 50 nationalities (Blaise Matuidi, Didier Drogba, Lionel Messi, Paula Radcliffe and Siya Kolisi amongst others), my mission is to create synergies between the athletes to support their initiatives, lead field actions and to represent the Organisation during International Forums and events.

Do you have any specific calendar day to celebrate peace and sport?

Yes, April 6th is the international day of Sport for Development and Peace. We celebrate it every year with the #WhiteCard movement and we all raise up a white card as a symbol of peace in a united way. This year, we have reached over 170 million people worldwide.

Do you have any favourite sport personage?

I love all of them as they all inspire me in a different way,” – says Marlene. – “But if I must highlight someone in particular then it would be Didier Drogba, the Ivorian retired professional football player who helped bring peace back and stop a civil war in 2005. He has also achieved incredible social actions through his Foundation and now acts as the Vice-President of Peace and Sport.

Are you happy with your job in Monaco?

I am working with the most inspiring Champions in the world, leading positive actions, it’s the best job one could ever imagine. Together, we are raising awareness to demonstrate that it is more than about performance, it plays a positive role in society.

The Principality of Monaco is famous for the Monaco Grand Prix. Do you have Formula One drivers as well in the organisation?

We are honoured to have Felipe Massa and Maro Engel as Champions for Peace who are active leaders and contributed to the April 6th #WhiteCard campaign. We would also love to have more drivers involved with us acting as role models, even if it is always more complex to develop motor sports in some of the zones where we have our field programs.

Does the Sovereign Prince of Monaco actively participate in the organisation?

Absolutely. As an Olympian, IOC member and Patron, His Serene Highness is very active in it. Even during the pandemic, he is working remotely, utilizing various digital tools and frequently sharing videos to support our action and the Champions for Peace.

Who is the next superstar athlete you will bring to Monaco?

The latest superstar who joined us is the Argentine professional footballer, Lionel Messi, who will be coming to Monaco this summer to accept the “Champion for Peace of the year” award from H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, the Peace and Sport Founder, Joel Bouzou and our partner Zepter.

Marlene is also the Founder and President of the Caravan for Peace, a humanitarian action, held annually in an emerging country, that promotes a message of peace and uses sport as a tool for development. In 2017, for the first edition, the Champions visited villages in Senegal and launched water fountains near sport fields. The latest edition in Mali was supported by the First Lady and promoted local sustainable initiatives.  

I consider the Caravan for Peace in partnership with Peace and Sport as my most meaningful achievement so far. We were able to unite champions, political leaders, and NGOs to make tangible field actions in emerging countries, to have a sustainable impact and positive impact on populations.

Africa and emerging countries became highly important for you, right?

Of course, you know almost 30% of communities around the world still do not have water access. Even if I was aware of it, this was shocking for me to experience and I realized that I couldn’t promote sports without ensuring a safe water access,” – says Marlene. – “The Caravan for Peace was able to inaugurate water fountains near the sports fields, offering water access to tens of thousands of people, changing lives and achieving sustainable goals.

Do you think you will live one day in Africa?

I have lived there but Monaco is where I feel at home and wish to stay. I love its people, values and its whole peaceful environment. I am identified as being involved in sports but I love culture just as much, and Monaco offers the best of both worlds. Plus, it’s an international hub and I embrace the diversity of its residents. So, I want to be based in the area, and keep on travelling abroad for punctual missions. I believe it is important to contribute all across the globe without limitations.

What do you do in Monaco during your free time?

I run every morning. I also love attending the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Opera, art exhibitions or discovering unique places in Monaco like the Francis Bacon Foundation, founded by Majid Boustany. And obviously, I cherish all the time I can spending it with family and friends whether walking around the port, enjoying dinners, or attending weekly get togethers at CREM (Monaco Foreign Residents Club).

Have you ever wanted to have a regular job?

Passion leads all my choices in life so when the right opportunity comes along I will consider it. I have earned an MBA, a degree in Journalism, a Master in Sport Management and the AMF certification to further my education, but for now I truly love what I do and find it meaningful. I also believe that most of the skill set acquired through my path whether in terms of leadership, management or international relations could always apply to any professional environment.

What is your message for the next generation?

Always believe in the power of your dreams. I believe it is important to find a passion that makes you happy, share and learn from others, and always evolve to become the best person you can be. I would encourage children to be active, because sport helps to foster positive values, and it provides both physical and mental benefits. In life, one of the most important elements is respect, as it leads to understanding and tolerance, and it creates social cohesion and solidarity, which in this pandemic era, we all need more than ever.

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