Marie-Josée Ta Lou – and the Olympic dream

Marie-Josée Ta Lou enjoyed one of her best-ever seasons in 2023.  From May to September, she ran twelve 100m races and won ten of them, including the Diamond Leagues in Florence, Oslo, London, and Lausanne.  She ran a 10.7 five times last summer.  The only races she did not win were the World Championships, when she finished fourth, and the Diamond League Final, when she was second.

Marie Josee Ta Lou, photo by World Athletics

When I asked her to explain how she was running so fast just short of her 35th birthday (18 November), she replied that, like good wine, she was improving with age! In the interview, she referred to herself as Ta Lou before bursting out laughing and saying, “I am not Ta Lou, I am now Mrs. Smith,” a reference to her marriage to J Smith in November 2023. Marriage has given her security and contentment and a strong base from which to compete.  Her Christian faith is another factor: “Without God, I could not achieve what I achieve now because there were many times when I wanted to give up. So, I think that God gave me the strength to not give up.  My career is almost different from any adult’s, I started really late. I started to perform late. I remember being told by different people that someone can’t start to perform at an elite level, like at 27”.

Marie-Josee TaLou, photo courtesy of Nike Communications

Ta Lou may certainly be described as a late developer not breaking 11 seconds until she was 27 and running a 10.7 for the first time when she was 32.  Growing up in Ivory Coast, the culture was not conducive to women playing sport: “Mostly women are supposed to be a wife and not to work. My mother didn’t want me to do sport.  She wanted me to continue with my studies and to become a doctor.  My older brother was a sports teacher. The second brother was in legal training. The third one, well, he got by. As I was the only girl in the family, she wanted me to continue my studies.  In Africa at that time, there was not much money in sports”.  She enjoyed playing football, but her family said she should not play football because she was becoming too much like a “failed boy”. It was only when her sports-teacher brother noticed that she was fast and could beat the boys in her class that she was encouraged to try athletics: “I ran in a Stade Abi in Abidjan. I had no shoes, no spikes, so I ran barefoot and won the 200m race, beating girls who had been training for a long time.  And that is how my love for athletics started”.

The women’s 200m, Sha’Carri Richardson, Gabby Thomas, Shericka Jackson, Marie_Josee Ta_Lou, photo by Getty Images for World Athletics

In 2010, she got a scholarship to go to China, hoping to combine studies and sports, but things did not work out very well: “When I was absent from school competing, it was always difficult catching up.  Chinese is not my first language, and that was difficult. The training was not really at a professional level. I was not improving”.  In 2013 he left China and returned to Ivory Coast.

By 2012, she had participated in the African Championships, coming third and fourth in the two sprints.  She achieved the Olympic B standard in the 100m but was not selected by her country for London 2012.  Her breakthrough came in 2014 when she was invited to go and train in Dakar, Senegal, and for the first time, she was training consistently at the elite level. By 2016, she was running in the Rio Olympics and finishing fourth, 0.007 seconds from the bronze medal. In  2017, she was second in the London World Championships 100 and 200m.

She took silver in the 2018 World Indoors (60m) and bronze in the 2019 World Championship (100m), finished fourth and fifth in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and reached the 100m final at the 2022 World Championships.

Dafne Schippers, Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Marie-Josee Ta Lou, London 2017, photo by World Athletics

2023 started badly for her with an injury in January, which fortunately cleared up by the start of the outdoor season.  Her assessment of 2023 was: “Even though I didn’t get a medal, it was one of the best years so far. It was the first time in my career that I was running 10.7s consistently. I have been running 10s, but it was like 10.9,10.8, so running 10.7 five times in a row for me is a great achievement, and it reassured me that I’m in a good pattern and in a good way”.  One of those – in Oslo – took her by surprise: “Before the race I had a problem breathing and I was tired. So I was like, ‘I’m not going to run’. I was with my [future] husband, and I told him that I was not feeling well and I didn’t know how I was going to run. And I called my coach and my coach said, ‘just relax, just run like a kid! You know, sometimes when you’re not feeling good, this is the time when you run well and run fast. Looking back, I think that maybe because I was not feeling good, I didn’t have any pressure. So I just ran relaxed and just executed what my coach told me to do, and it worked as I ran 10.75”.

Fourth in 10.81 in the 2023 World Championship was a disappointment, but she finished the season with a strong performance and second place in the Diamond League Final in Eugene.

Marie-Josée Ta Lou Wins the Women’s 100m with a time of 10.97 at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Rome/Florence, Italy on 2 June 2023, photo by Matthew Quine for Diamond League AG

“I was not too sure if I could go to the Diamond League final because I got injured in the last relay race in Budapest and had to cancel all my races after that. I only re-started training three or four days before the final of the Diamond League. I was really happy to finish second in the Diamond League final and to do 10.75 again. And then, in the final 200 meters, I ran 22.10 because I hadn’t really run many 200 meters this year. So I was like, ‘OK, I’ll just go out to enjoy myself’. I was like, ‘It is the end of the season, so just go and run’. I was really surprised at the time that I did”.

I remember asking Ta Lou in 2017 where she lived, and she said she did not know!  She was training in Senegal and sometimes in the Ivory Coast but did not have a permanent base.  Now she is married and based in LA, where she is coached by the legendary John Smith – not to be confused with her husband, J Smith.

Marie-Josee TaLou, photo by BBC Africa

She told me how John Smith’s approach is making her a better athlete: “I will not say my coaching is better now because my previous coach was also a good coach, but there are many things that we could have done differently to improve my running, which I’m doing now. I am working with John Smith on my technique, on a way to be more relaxed in running and to work more efficiently. It’s not always about running harder but running smarter and more efficiently. So this is what my coach and I are doing. People say they notice everything has changed in my technique and that I’m running more relaxed. I would say that I understand running more now”.

Ta Lo has had a great career and is pleased that she may have helped African women believe they can overcome the barriers people put in their way and achieve their potential. She has one more Olympic left in her and would love that elusive Olympic medal after those three fourth-place finishes, but she is not obsessed with it. “I am starting to see it differently because. as much as I want to have a medal in the Olympics, I always leave it to God. What he thinks fit for me, he will give me because I know I’m talented, I know I can win medals. But I don’t want to put any pressure on myself because when you put too much pressure on yourself to achieve something, it can be negative. I know that my main goal is to win gold, to be on the podium, to win a medal. I will allow myself to do it. It may come, but I don’t want to put any pressure on next year –  for maybe my last Olympics. I just want to enjoy what I love, running”.

Marie Josee Ta Lou, Tori Bowie, Dafne Schippers, London 2017, photo by World Athletics,

Her approach to the Olympic year will be to run smart: “No indoors. We will focus on the outdoors. And with my coach, we will decide which competitions I will do next year.  It’s not about being in one country and the next day flying like 12 hours to come to another country to run again. As I say, we must be smart and take what is good and best to be fit for the Olympics”.

Through it all, she looks pretty content: “I have been through a lot. I was down, but you always see me smiling. You see me always caring for other people. But this is God.  Without God, I would not be who I am today. There will come a time when I may explain more about what happened in my life. Maybe in a book”.