Making Olympic history seems to come easy to Francoise Mbango Etone.
In Athens four years ago she became the first athlete from Cameroon to win an Olympic gold. In Beijing yesterday she became the first female triple jumper to retain an Olympic title, and she did so by breaking the Olympic record and setting a new African record in the process.
The competition was historic too as six women jumped further than 15 metres for the first time ever, and the 15 metre-barrier was breached no fewer than 10 times. Phew!
Historical outfit too!
But the bit of history that seemed to excite the 31-year-old most of all was the one made by her unusual dress sense, for Mbango may well go down as the first track and field athlete to win Olympic gold medal while wearing a skirt.
“Maybe it’s a small bit of history,” she said when asked about the scarlet garment she wore instead of her customary singlet and shorts, or the all-in one-lycra tunics favoured by the modern day athlete.
“The idea was mine,” Mbango said, with a grin and a spark in her eye. She has only returned to the sport this year after three years away while she gave birth to her first child, Niels Adna, in 2006. Being pregnant gives you lots of time to think, it seems.
“When I was pregnant I started to watch tennis,” she explained. “I got to like watching it a lot on the TV. So when I came back to triple jumping I thought ‘OK, I want to look special now. I am an athlete, and an Olympic champion. But I am also a woman athlete.’
“I wanted to find something that would be more feminine and sexy but not too open,” she adds. “You have to repsect yourself, but I wanted to look good. And I wanted to make something new, to bring a change to the sport.”
Whether it will catch on we’ll have to wait and see. But Mbango – who dedicated her medal to her son – was keen to relay the message that as yet she has no sponsor for this new style of track and field wear, and that she chose it herself from a shop in Paris where she lives and trains.
“It had to match my country Cameroon’s colours,” she said. “But otherwise the federation was fine about it. I didn’t need their permission.”
Yet it wasn’t the only bit of unusual wear on show in the triple jump final. Hrysipiyi Devetzi, who won the bronze medal, leapt in long, dangly earings, and Tatyana Lebedeva, the silver medallist, sported skin tight sleeves that stretched from her wrists to her shoulders, one red and one white.
The Russian, as she so often does, also had a new haircut, dyed with a twisted streak of gold. Mbango had dyed her hair too, each coloured braid having a particular significance.
“The black is to represent my contintent, Africa, the red for China, and the blonde is for the colour of my medal, gold,” she explained.
Winning step by step strategy
After winning the title four years ago, Mbango would have been satisfied with nothing less than gold this time. But getting into shape to compete for her crown was something of a challenge, one that she overcame with what she calls – appropriately enough – a step-by-step strategy.
“It was really important for me to come back after having my baby and that’s why I took all the time I needed to train myself back to fitness,” she said. “I know many people around the world needed me to come back. Many believed in me and I believed in myself. But I didn’t want to rush it.”
She couldn’t. Mbango says she put on something like 30kg when when she was pregnant and lost all her condition. “I was fat like this,” she says, circling her arms around her now well-toned body. “It was hard for me to come back because I lost so much shape. I took it easy. It was really difficult to get fit so that’s why I took my time, step-by-step.”
Mbango began the road to China in Paris, where she started training with her younger sister, Helene Eseppo, often watched by young Niels, who learned to cry “Bravo Mama”. She quickly learned it would be a slow road, though.
“I told myself that I would come back to competition when I could jump 14.50,” she says. “The Olympic champion can’t come and jump 13 metres. It’s better to take your time, train hard and try to come back in little bits with small levels of improvement.”
Clearly, the bit-by-bit approach worked for she managed 14.50m in her first competition back, a small meeting in Yaounde as recently as March this year. “I knew I was on the right track because 14.50 was the same as the qualification here,” she says. “But in my first comeptition I was just trying to familiarise myself with the event again.”
This one is for my baby
Then she went to the African Games in Ethiopia in May, and has had just four more competitions in Europe before coming to Beijing, enough to push her season’s best up to 14.95. She was surprised, she says, by how much the event has improved since she stoped jumping, and especially by the high quality of so many athletes in the Olympic final.
“To have more than six over 15 metres is fantastic,” she says. “But there are some new faces for me. I know Lebedeva and the Greek Devetzi, of course, but I didn’t know the Cuban, or the Slovenian, or the Kazakhstani. They all jumped 15 metres, so I was surprised but I was not afraid.
“I told myself, ‘OK, just to get a medal you have to jump your best, 15.30. Maybe if you do that you’ll be OK. But I didn’t know which one it would be.”
In the end, experience counted, she says. Experience and self belief. “Coming back from having a baby two years ago and making an Olympic record, I think have to be more happy now than I was in Athens.
“But the gold is better than the record, I think, if I had to choose. It is for my baby.”
After all he has a lot to answer for – not least, the long lay-off that then led to a slow return to fitness, and to the top of the Olympic podium. Oh, and in a way, he’s responsible for that scarlet skirt too.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF