Jill Penton-Browne begins a new series of our sampling of the English-speaking community with an Englishwoman who has been closely involved for a quarter of a century with one of the region's top sporting events
Ask Dianne Brothwell why she came here — and why she stays — and she doesn't hesitate for an answer: "the weather". Not an unusual reason, you might say, but for Dianne the bright sky and balmy air of the Côte d'Azur contrast with what she left behind her. "I was born and brought up in Humby, a tiny village in Lincolnshire. A real community — there were only 21 houses — but I never got to like the weather. It was damp, cold and misty. Brrr!" At university she read French and then couldn't believe her luck when she was sent as English assistant to the Lycée Capron in Cannes. "For the first few days it was like I was on another planet. I have to say, though, that I didn't find much human warmth. French school staffrooms aren't very friendly places at the best of times, but low-lifes such as English assistants really get frozen out."
After a few short months — during which she "fell totally for the Côte d'Azur" — Dianne had to return to university in England. After graduating and training as a teacher, she went to work teaching French at a comprehensive school in Marylebone. "Well, I could only take so much of that, and walking down Baker Street I'd get these flashbacks to la Croisette." Result: one day she upped sticks and flew down to Nice. "I took any old teaching job I could find — Berlitz, that kind of thing — but then I got hired by the university and for years now I've been teaching English at the law faculty." That's part of Dianne's activity; the other aspect of her working life began with an unexpected telephone call back in 1975. Nice has hosted the Europa Cup, a major athletics event that year and the organiser, Robert Bortojo, had got things rolling to start an annual event here, and that was Nikaia. He wanted a part-time assistant who spoke English and Dianne was in the right place at the right time — and she's been there ever since.
Probably everyone's seen a Nikaia poster — but what is it exactly? "It's one of the major athletic meetings in the world, part now of the International Amateur Athletics Federation's Grand Prix 1 circuit. That means we can attract the leading sportsmen in their fields — and see some marvellous performances. Last year we were ranked, on the basis of the recorded performances, 9th out of 145 meetings worldwide. We get about 15,000 spectators and very wide media coverage. The year 2000 is very special: it's our 25th birthday and so we hope for some really good things."
What does the work involve? "Well, most of it is Robert Bortojo — the father and powerhouse of Nikaia. It's a privilege to work with him. Across the year, there are stages. Immediately after the event you've got the housekeeping to do — making sure the bills are paid, for example. Then there's the critical job of finding sponsors, including a major TV channel — this year it's FR2. Just after Christmas we start the casting, if you like. Some participants apply to take part, others we approach." Although she admits she wasn't originally much of a sports fan, Dianne now talks of athletics with enthusiasm and expertness. "I get to talk to the competitors a lot and to understand what makes them tick." Her greatest memory: "no doubt about it: 1985 when Steve Cram broke the world record for the 1500 metres. We hadn't expected such a great race but it turned into a breathtaking duel between Steve and the Moroccan Said Aouita. I can still conjure up an action replay in my head…" One memory among many which make Dianne glad she took that call back in 1975.
From Reporter Issue 79