The list of Ivory Coast athletes who have made an impact globally on the sport was, until about 18 months ago, an extremely short one and only really contained around one name: Gabriel Tiacoh.
Tiacoh won the 400m silver medal at the 1984 Olympic Games and made the final over one lap of the track at the 1987 IAAF World Championships but tragically died of viral meningitis just five years later.
However, sprinter Murielle Ahoure is now starting to make the sort of impression that would make Tiacoh proud.
Last March, at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, Ahoure took the 60m silver medal, her country’s first ever medal at an IAAF World Championships, of any age or description.
Now people are talking about her as a medal contender outdoors this summer in Moscow, especially in the wake of her impressive defeat of 2012 Olympic 200m champion Allyson Felix last Thursday at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome.
Ahoure sped around the bend in the Italian capital’s Olympic Stadium to clock a national record of 22.36, leaving the American a distant second in 22.64, and inflicting the first defeat on Felix over her favourite distance since the 2011 IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich.
“I’m very excited about my victory and the national record is a big bonus. To be honest, I didn’t think too much about the time before the start, I just wanted to execute my race properly and it worked well,” reflected Ahoure.
“I wasn’t worried about having strong opponents next to me (Felix was on the lane inside her). It will be the same at the World Championships where I hope all my hard work will pay off, that’s what I am working towards,” she added.
Her Rome run took 0.06 off her personal best and moved her up to fifth on the African all-time lists, behind four Nigerian sprinters, and put her a little bit closer to the long-standing African 200m record of 22.07, which has been held by Mary Onyali since 1996.
Still only 25, Ahoure has travelled a long road to where she is today, regardless of what path she travels from here, to Moscow and beyond.
“I came to the United States when I was 14 because of the civil war in my country. A lot of people left at that time. It was amazing for me to go to the United States, it’s a wonderful country where there are so many more opportunities and for me it’s been a dream come true.
“I started out at high school and I only started running in 11th grade (at the age of 16). I’d transferred high schools, I was a bit lonely and brand new to that school and my guidance councillor said to me ‘a great way to make friends is to join a team’. By a complete miracle, I joined the track team and the rest is history,” she joked.
“In my senior year in high school, when I saw some schools (US universities) were talking to me and offering scholarships, I said, ‘Hey, this is cool. I can do this.’”
Having settled in the Virginia city of Alexandria, she initially went to the nearby George Mason University but transferred to the University of Miami for her final year, where she graduated with degree a criminal law and also started to make a name for herself on the track, including winning the American collegiate (NCAA) indoor 200m crown and running a national 100m record of 11.09 outdoors.
Despite injury problems in 2010, she continued to progress and improved to 11.06 in 2011 and then 10.99 last year, becoming just the sixth African sprinter under 11 seconds.
After not going to either of the 2009 or 2011 IAAF World Championships, she made both the 100m and 200m finals at the London 2012 Olympic Games, finishing seventh and sixth respectively.
Now based in Houston, and despite the fact that she has spent more than a decade in the United States, and pays fulsome tribute to what the country has given her terms of education and a way of life, one of her missions is to make people look at Ivory Coast in a different way, both from a sporting and social dimension.
“I’m still close to my roots in the Ivory Coast. I was born there, went to France when I was three and then returned to the Ivory Coast when I was around 11 before leaving again about two years later. I went back to France and then a year later to the United States
“I’m a huge, huge fan of the Ivory Coast soccer team and those guys but it’s amazing that I’m bringing some attention to another sport other than soccer,” said Ahoure, who is on the verge of becoming a huge celebrity in her native country.
“When you think about Ivory Coast and sport, you think about Didier Drogba and all those other soccer stars, so it’s really nice to shine a light on something else other than soccer.
“Ever since the civil war, every time you hear the name or someone mentions the Ivory Coast, all people think about is war, war, war; but a new president (Alassane Ouattara, who took office at the start of 2011) has come in and things are running more smoothly, and they have been very supportive.
“I’m really excited about the future. It’s such an honour even to represent my country. I have so much pride wearing my national uniform and hear the announcers say my country when I’m lining up, and putting Ivory Coast on the map,” commented the ever-ebulient Ahoure.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF