HelsinkiThis morning’s heats of the women’s 200m may have been a formality for the likes of Veronica Campbell, Allyson Felix or Christine Arron but it marked history for the western African country of Benin.
The French speaking Republic which counts approximately 6.7 million inhabitants is far from being one of the continents most powerful countries in terms of athletics history.
Although represented at all but one IAAF World Championships Benin never saw one of its athletes advance past the second round in a major competition. 400m specialist Jean-Claude Yekpe was the country’s best representative with a quarter finals run at the 1993 Championships in Stuttgart.
But that was until 29-year-old Fabienne Feraez turned in the finest performance of her career in terms of major championships run this morning.
A surprise winner of heat three in a respectful 23.72, considering the chilly conditions, the rain and the 3.2m head wind (the strongest of the four qualifying heats) she automatically qualified for tomorrow’s semi-finals.
“My goal this morning was to be among the top three automatic qualifiers and advance to the semi-finals. But I didn’t expect to be the first across the line,” confessed the young woman who celebrated her birthday just four days ago.
“I feel very good and I hope I can qualify for the final. After that we’ll see what happens. But as of now, I am a very happy woman.”
Born in France, Feraez competed for her native country until the summer of 2003 when she opted to represent Benin, her father’s native country.
Under the French colours Feraez was fifth at the 1999 World Student Games; however she says she never really felt part of the team.
“I didn’t feel at ease in the French team. I felt like the one too many sprinter,” she confessed.
However she is prompt to precise that the reasons behind her change of nationality are different.
“My mother is French but my father is from Benin and all of his family still live in Africa. My grandmother and all of my cousins live in Benin and although I had never been there until October 2003 I have always been very close to them. I wanted to learn more about Benin. I wanted to know about the country and its people and that is what I decided to swap.”
“I have been welcomed so well by the Federation of Benin; everyone has been so supportive and encouraging. I hope they are all proud of me now.”
Quarter-finals in Paris 2003 and Athens 2004
Feraez made the switch in the early summer of 2003 in time to represent Benin at the 2003 World Championships. And for her first participation in a World Championships the Parisian-based athlete set a new National record of 23.85 which was good enough for a spot in the quarter-finals.
She made her first ever trip to Benin, one which she describes as a terrific experience, in the fall of 2003 just before the African Games at which she was eighth at 200m.
At the Athens Olympic Games last summer, she once again made it through the second round lowering her national record and personal best to 23.12 in the process.
Feraez is keen to admit that the last two years have felt like a second career for her. She pays tribute to her coach Hervé Stéphan, a former coach at the IAAF High Performance Training Centre in Dakar, with whom she started training two years ago.
“I was ready to quit and then he came to Colombes - the outskirts of Paris - where I used to train. It was just a matter of coincidence but he saved my life, he gave me back the will to compete and I thank him for that,” said the delighted sprinter.
Working with the likes of former World champion Amy Mbacke Thiam and Olympic bronze medallist Naman Keita certainly paid off as Feraez lowered her personal best to 22.81 just a few weeks ago in Angers. And she certainly seems to have what it takes to further improve on that mark.
“I just feel in great shape. It’s hard to cope with the wind but the conditions are bad for all the competitors. I will do all I can to be in the final.”
Drawn in lane six in the second semi-final, Feraez will have to be among the top four in her race if she wants to further mark the history of athletics in Benin.
Laura Arcoleo for the IAAF