Marie-Josée Ta Lou has often been unlucky on days when she needed to be perfect.
At the 2016 Olympics, Ta Lou, a sprinter from the West African nation of Ivory Coast, missed the women’s 100-meter medal stand by just seven-thousandths of a second. Days later, she lost out on a medal by a single place yet again, finishing fourth in the 200 meters.
Five years later, Ta Lou headed into the women’s 100-meter final at the Tokyo Olympics with the third-fastest seed time. Ta Lou said she was in the best shape of her life, but she dealt with stomach issues beginning in the semifinals. She grunted and grimaced through the 100-meter final as runners pulled ahead of her. She finished fourth again.
In a sport in which the Olympics and the World Championships are paramount — and in a race in which runners have to execute flawlessly for just under 11 seconds — a minuscule misstep can be the difference between winning a gold medal and missing the podium altogether, becoming a global superstar or fading to a forgotten speedster.
Ta Lou, 34, has the eighth-fastest time ever run by a woman over 100 meters (10.72 seconds). Yet, she has no gold medals to show for it.
The Tokyo Olympics was a breaking point. Ta Lou called her fiancé in tears and told him she would be retiring.
“At that point, I didn’t want to continue to run,” she said in a phone interview. “It was just too much for me. I was done. It was the worst year.”
After some convincing from her fiancé and her manager, rather than retiring, Ta Lou decided that a coaching change might help her reach the medal stand. She hired John Smith, who also coaches last year’s 400-meter world champion, Michael Norman. Smith has helped Ta Lou run the world’s third-fastest time in the 100 meters this year, 10.75 seconds.
She will have another shot at winning her first gold at the World Championships this summer, which begin Aug. 19 in Budapest, Hungary. Ta Lou may also compete in the 200 meters, a decision she will make after running the 100.
“I’m really going for the gold, and I believe that I can do it,” Ta Lou said. “I’m praying on it.”
Most individual sports offer multiple opportunities each year to boost an athlete’s legacy and earning potential, like the majors in golf or the Grand Slams in tennis. But in track and field, the most important races are the Olympic Games, which take place every four years, and the World Championships, which happen every two years. (The World Championships are taking place in both 2022 and 2023 after pandemic delays forced the postponement of the 2021 championships.)
Standout performances at those events can lead to major sponsorships — and disappointing finishes can create financial insecurity.
To prepare for this year’s championships, Ta Lou has competed in many of the 100-meter races on the Diamond League circuit, an annual series of 14 meets that crowns a champion at its conclusion. Many top athletes skip most of that circuit to ensure they are as fresh as possible for the World Championships or the Olympics.
But the meets have proven valuable for Ta Lou this season as she has adapted to a new running style and a training regimen that have helped cement her as one of the most consistent women in the world over 100 meters.
“We’ve had a chance to work on some technical things that allow her to be equally strong as all of the Europeans, the Jamaicans and the Americans,” said Smith, her coach. “So, as she steps to the line, she’s stepping in with an arsenal equal to theirs.”
Ivory Coast has never won gold in the 100 meters at the World Championships. Jamaica and the United States have dominated the event, winning 14 out of the 18 golds since the race was first held in 1983. Ta Lou is just the second female sprinter from her country to earn a medal in the 100 meters.
Still, even with the third-fastest 100-meter time in the world this year, Ta Lou is considered a long shot to win gold. She would either be disrupting a streak of Jamaican dominance in the event or spoiling Sha’Carri Richardson’s renaissance. Both Richardson of the U.S. and Shericka Jackson of Jamaica have run faster times than Ta Lou this year, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the reigning Olympic 100-meter champion, also of Jamaica, will be considered medal-stand favorites.
But the World Championships have historically been fruitful for Ta Lou. In 2017, she won silver medals in the 100 and 200-meter races, and in 2019, she finished with a bronze in the 100. (A shoulder injury last year kept her from making a World Championship final for the first time since 2015.)
“When I’m talking to her about her, I don’t talk to her about anybody else because our goals are lofty enough that they would put her on the top of the podium,” Smith said. “I see everybody’s running fast times and so forth, but so is she.”
Ta Lou’s finish at the World Championships this year will have little effect on her status as one of the greatest African sprinters ever. She holds the African record in the 100 meters, and her three combined World Championship medals in the 100 and 200 are the most by any woman representing an African country.
Ta Lou’s feats have been even more impressive because she did not begin competing in track and field until she was 18. She had always wanted to be a professional soccer player, but she turned to track after being convinced by her brothers to give the sport a chance. Now, Ta Lou is a mentor and inspiration for many who run for Ivory Coast.
For Jessika Gbai, 24, a teammate of Ta Lou’s on the Ivory Coast 4×100-meter relay squad, Ta Lou has been an unexpected “big sister” for her since she turned professional last year. She’s still somewhat startled each time she gets long texts or calls of encouragement from Ta Lou, she said.
“It’s shocking to see someone of her status really go out her way to try to help people like me,” Gbai said. “She’s already at that world-class level. Her goal is to get a medal. My goal is to get there.”
Gbai continued: “So it doesn’t matter if she wins. I feel like she’s already done so much and still has so much more talent and years to go. I’m just impressed by all she’s accomplished and continues to accomplish.”