ASABA, Nigeria (Reuters) - African sprint queen Marie-Josee Ta Lou believes the era of Jamaican and American women dominating track and fields’ shortest events is coming to an end.
The Ivory Coast athlete, the year’s joint fastest over 100 metres, will have a chance to prove that point twice in the coming days when the world silver medallist races in Thursday’s Diamond League final in Zurich and the IAAF Continental Cup in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Ta Lou and British record holder Dina Asher-Smith go into the meetings tied for the year’s top time of 10.85 seconds.
Jamaican Olympic gold medallist Elaine Thompson ranks sixth on 2018 world lists while U.S. world champion Tori Bowie has been injured most of the season.
The leading American, Aleia Hobbs, is tied for third on the 2018 lists with Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor and Ivorian Murielle Ahoure.
“African athletes are there. I cannot now say the Americans or Jamaicans athletes are top, I am very optimistic that with the top athletes in the world in the line-up today, no one can say who will be the winner,” Ta Lou told Reuters.
No African woman has won an Olympic or world gold medal in the 100m with Ta Lou (2017) and fellow Ivorian world silver medallist Ahoure (2013) coming closest.
Trinidad and Tobago’s four-times Olympic sprint medallist Ato Boldon, now a TV analyst and coach, believes the 29-year-old Ta Lou could be the first.
“I really feel like she is going to be in the best chance to be the first African to be in the top of the podium in the 100 metres,” Boldon told Reuters after watching Ta Lou claim 100 and 200m titles in the African championships.
The sprints have been an American and Jamaican stronghold with athletes from the two countries winning all but one of the last nine Olympic 100m races and the past four 200m.
The countries are equally dominant in world championship 100m, collecting nine consecutive gold medals in the event.
Olympic and world athletics gold medal aspirations, though, are a far cry from Ta Lou’s first love - soccer.
“I didn’t start my sporting career with athletics, I started with football and my brothers and friends encouraged me to take to athletics,” said Ta Lou, the youngest of three.
“I started in my school days 10 years ago and it was not a success story at the beginning, I was a starter and it was not like the real thing for me, I was just seeing myself having fun with it.”
Ta Lou, who relaxes by listening to Christian music, sprung to prominence with her performance in the first national competition she attended in Ivory Coast.
The sprinter, who cites Nigerian Okagbare-Ighoteguonor as her idol, said she has no preference between the 100 and 200m, where she has a personal best of 22.08 seconds.
“I have many coaches in Ivory Coast who have contributed to my training and success on the track,” she said. “I’ve been training in Ivory Coast and, at times, I go outside of the country but now I am in Ivory Coast.”
Ta Lou’s believes her success has influenced her compatriots.
“I don’t see myself as a role model for African girls,” Ta Lou said. “It is for others to judge but one thing I am sure of is that I have inspired a lot of them.”
Marriage will wait while she seeks to break the Jamaican-American sprint duopoly, she said, and she simply wants to master the art of being as fast as possible in the hope of winning gold medals.
“I just do my training the best way I can and wait for things to unfold,” she said. “And, if you ask me, I will say let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
Editing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Ed Osmond