Stuart Weir meets the Ivory Coast athlete who won two sprint silver medals at London 2017
When Marie-Josée Ta Lou took silver in the both the women’s sprints in London 2017, it was a just reward for the sacrifices the Ivory Coast athlete had made.
Growing up in the capital, Abidjan, she played football until her older brother, a sports teacher, made her stop because she was “becoming too much like a boy”. Recognising her natural speed she was encouraged to go to the local track where the athletics club was holding trials to identify new athletes.
Without spikes – in fact without shoes of any kind – she ran barefoot against girls who had been training for months and beat them all in a 200m race. While her brother was pleased she was doing athletics, her mother saw it as a distraction from school, wanting her daughter to study medicine at university.
In 2010 she and fellow Ivorian athlete, Wilfried Koffi, got scholarships to study at Shanghai University but it did not work out well. She recalls: “I was hoping to combine studies and sport. When I was absent from school competing, it was always difficult catching up.
“Chinese is not my first language and that was difficult. I was going to lose my scholarship and my coach wasn’t really interested in me,” she says, adding that she returned home in 2013.
“If you know what you want and you believe in yourself and trust your coach and have people to support you, there is no reason why you cannot achieve your goal”
In 2012 she came third in the 200m in the African Championships, achieving the Olympic B standard. She recalls being surprised as she had gone to the event with no expectations other than to try her luck and see if she could be competitive at that level. She was excited to achieve the Olympic standard but as Murielle Ahouré had the A standard for London 2012, the B standard was not enough for selection.
Then, in 2014, she had the opportunity of going to Dakar to train at the West African high performance centre and to be coached by Anthony Koffi, who had been Amantle Montsho’s coach. Her PB at that time was 11.53 but she ran 11.20 in 2014 and 11.02 in 2015.
In 2015 she was selected for the World Championships in Beijing, reaching the semi-final in the 100m and 200m. In the 200m she ran a PB of 22.56 to miss the final by one place and 0.03 of a second.
Ta Lou opened her 2016 campaign by reaching the world indoor 60m final in Portland but she did not hear the gun and a bad start left her finishing in seventh. Then she picked up an injury but still finished fourth in the Olympic 100m final in Rio in a PB of 10.86 – the same time as bronze medallist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
Ta Lou remembers: “The time appeared on the board as 11.34 but it was a mistake. Then it changed to 10.86 and I was happy. But I was fourth.
“When I saw that my time was exactly the same as third, I asked the officials how they decided that I was fourth not third. It was difficult to accept that I finished in the same time [as Shelly-Ann] but was given fourth place not third. That didn’t seem fair.”
Ta Lou was judged seven thousands of a second behind the Jamaican and adds: “It was really difficult to accept because an Olympic medal is a special medal and the Olympics are only every four years so to have won a medal would have been a real blessing. It was hard for me but now I have a better perspective and I tell myself that things like this happen in competition according to God’s will. It is more important now to look to the future.”
In the 200m in Rio she ran PBs of 22.31 and 22.28 to win her heat and semi-final. In the final she ran another PB and a national record of 22.21 for fourth – a bittersweet outcome as she finished outside the medals again.
Ta Lou now trains in Dakar, Senegal, and in 2017 targeted medals at the IAAF World Championships in London. “I knew I had the ability to run for a medal of whatever colour,” she says.
“I had trained but I had a difficult period at the start of the 2017 in terms of morale, finance and also physically. I started training in January but was injured in February. I remember calling my coach and saying: ‘coach I don’t want to run. I want to end my season’ but I returned to training in March a bit behind. From March to May the priority was speed and strength but my coach and I still doubted if I could be at the right level by August.”
She continues: “If you know what you want and you believe in yourself and trust your coach and have people to support you, there is no reason why you cannot achieve your goal. And that is what happened. I came to win a medal in London and I won two medals by God’s grace.”
“If I work next year like I worked this year I will be near the top again”
Ta Lou equalled her PB in the 100m and set a national record in the 200m. In the 100m she ran an identical time to Rio and was beaten by a hundredth of a second, only by the American Bowie’s dive for the finish line. Her reaction to her two silver medals in London 2017 was typically understated. Following the 100m she said: “It was strange [to run the identical time to Rio]. I think I could have done better but at the finish – as everyone saw – I didn’t quite lean or dip as I crossed the line and that made the difference. I really think I could have done better, faster than 10.86. But I won a silver medal with 10.86. I didn’t expect more than that and was really pleased. It’s a dream come true.
“I didn’t expect to be in the top three because all the girls have the power and talent to make the podium. After every competition I get stronger, I thank God for the power he gives me.”
Of the 200m, she says: “I did all I could in that race. To get a silver medal is more than I could have asked for. I hope I have inspired a lot of girls back in the Ivory Coast”.
Ta Lou also won the 200m at the Monaco Diamond League and finished in the top three in eight other Diamond League races.
In the Diamond League finals she was third in the 200m and was second in the 100m in 10.93, one hundredth of a second behind winner Elaine Thompson, to end a season of consistent excellence.
“My season was really good,” she says. “I did not start early but I have two medals and am near the top in the Diamond League. If I work next year like I worked this year I will be near the top again.”
Then picking up the theme of being a role model, she said: “My family called me and people back home are thanking me for giving them hope for the development of sport in Africa. My story has inspired them and I am very happy to inspire another person.”