After missing out on a podium finish by a few thousandths of a second at Rio 2016, the 31-year-old athlete hopes to be the first Ivorian sprinter to win an Olympic medal and wants to inspire African girls.
“I want to forget Rio.”
That is how Marie-Josée Ta Lou reacted when Tokyo 2020 asked her about her first Olympic Games back in 2016. She finished fourth in both the 200m and 100m events - maybe the worst place to finish in athletics.
Even worse than that was the fact that the result of the 100m event was decided by a photo finish. She had the same time (10.86s) as Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, but finished fourth by a few thousandths of a second.
However, even if Rio was a true disappointment, Ta Lou remained positive, because a couple of months before the Games, she didn’t actually know if she would be able to run.
“I got injured at the Diamond League meeting in Doha in May 2016, and I didn’t know if I would be able to run in Rio,” remembers Ta Lou. “When I came back, I asked my coach Anthony Koffi, “Will I do something in Rio, my first Olympics?”
“Then I went to London for another Diamond League meeting [less than a month before the Games], and I ran my first 100m under 11 seconds. So I told my coach, 'OK, I can do something and if God gives me a semi-final, it will be OK for me'. Then I qualified for the final and I was like, 'Wow!'”
“In the final, what happened, happened. But I try not to remember it too much and stay positive.”
And in reality, she knows this disappointment helped her get better. “Running alongside those ladies, who achieved great things, was useful for me."
Rio gave me self-confidence, experience and motivation to return to training and work hard.
Hard work pays off
One year later, she went back to London for the 2017 Athletics World Championship, where she had shone a year before.
She arrived with a new stature. The one of a woman who knows what a global event is. In both the 100m and 200m, she won her heats and semi-finals with a swagger.
When the gun shot at the start of the 100m final, she was the fastest starter, took the lead, and was only beaten by the American Tori Bowie at the very end by 0.01.
She earned a silver medal in 10.86s and the same colour medal in the 200m, where she was beaten by Dafne Schippers. But by posting a time of 22.08s, Ta Lou achieved a personal best and broke the national record.
“The London 2017 200m was my best race so far,” Ta Lou confirmed.
Four years after her compatriot Murielle Ahouré won silver in the 100m and 200m at the 2013 Athletics World Championships in Moscow, Marie-José Ta Lou won her first world medals.
Gold to make history in Tokyo
With two gold medals at the 2018 African Championships and a World Championship bronze medal at Doha 2019 (100m), she now wants to reach for Olympic glory. In Tokyo 2020, she will aim for nothing less than gold.
“Sometimes I’m in doubt, but my coach reminds me that I can do something good. So I believe in myself. My goal is to win gold medals in both the 100m and 200m. But only one gold medal would be great as well,” she laughs. “I want to beat my records and I know I can do it.”
If she manages to win the Olympic gold or even achieve a podium finish, she would become the first Ivorian sprinter to take home an Olympic medal and the first African runner to win a medal in the 100m. It’s a true motivation for her.
“It gives me a boost. I want to be the greatest sprinter in Africa,” Ta Lou adds.
In the beginning, things were not that easy for Marie-Josée. The idea of competing in athletics with the goal of becoming a champion was not easily accepted by her mother, family or friends.
“When I started, my mother didn't want me to do it," she recalls. “And people around me said, 'You are from Africa, I don't think you will become someone. I want you to continue your studies, to work in an office'. But I felt it, because I like to run so much. This is my way.”
So Ta Lou kept on chasing her dreams until the Olympics and World medals came. She did so to such an extent that athletics is now how she defines herself.
“Athletics is who I am today. Before, I didn’t love myself like that. With athletics, I see another part of me. It’s the only way to show what I can do.”
Athletics is who I am today
An example in Africa
In Côte d’Ivoire and in Africa in general, Ta Lou has now become an example. It's new role that she’s not afraid to take on, as she wants to show the younger generation that with hard work, everything is possible.
“When they see how I started and who I am today, that gives them hope. This is an opportunity for the youngsters to believe in themselves. I want to show them that they can do whatever they love and achieve great things.”
“It gives me so much confidence. I didn’t know that doing what I’m doing could be an example for other people. You don’t need much to become a star. You just need to work hard and believe in yourself.
“It’s nice to see people who want to take a picture with me, who want to become like me. But I tell them they should not want to become like me, rather greater than me.”
She pushes people to not be afraid to make sacrifices. Because she considers it the only way to leave a legacy.
“Young people sometimes like an easy life. But there are two things. Either you just want to do athletics or you want to leave a legacy. If you want to leave a legacy, you have to make sacrifices in your life.”
“When I was young, I was dreaming of doing something different. I want to leave a big legacy. Not only for Ivorian girls, but for all African girls. I want to show that they can do something big if they believe in themselves.”
Ta Lou is currently at home with her boyfriend in Abidjan, where there is a curfew from 9pm to 5am due to the COVID-19 outbreak. She could go out and train but she doesn’t want to “take any risks”. Also, the stadiums and gyms are closed.
As a consequence, she cannot do what she loves.
“I don’t have a treadmill, so I can’t run. The last time I took a proper run was in March!”
With the cancellation of the Diamond League events, Ta Lou has not been earning money for some months, but she doesn’t care and feels lucky to be healthy.
“I wake up every morning and I am in good health, so I’m not going to complain about money,” she says.
“My coaches once told me, 'Just show your talent, and money will come after'. So I don’t run after money. I run after my destiny, after what I love.”