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Hugues-Fabrice Zango has a mind of steel. Of the type to work hours on physics calculations at the university then to chain the strides at the stadium until nightfall. PhD student by day, triple jumper by night, the Burkinabé multiplies the exploits. At 29, he won the first Olympic medal (bronze) in the history of his country, Burkina Faso, at the Tokyo Games in 2021, thus becoming the first African athlete crowned in this discipline. A few months earlier, Hugues-Fabrice Zango broke the indoor world record, crossing the 18-meter (18.07 m) bar for the first time.
Nothing seems to stop this doctoral student in electrical engineering in Béthune (Pas-de-Calais), crowned vice-world champion at the Eugene athletics championships, in the United States, in July. Advertising posters bearing his effigy, welcome committee for his arrival at the airport, selfies… In Burkina Faso, the king of the triple jump has helped to promote this long little-known discipline, and he has become an example for young people. “I am stopped in the street to congratulate me, parents ask me for advice for their children”is astonished this very shy man, knighted in the Order of Merit for his bronze medal in Japan.
Hugues Fabrice Zango has always aimed for excellence. First in his class in college, he already stands out in physical education and sports class (EPS), where he runs faster than his classmates. But “especially to get good grades! “, specifies the athlete, who begins by integrating the football team of his establishment, in Ouagadougou, and participates in a school athletics tournament. “a bit by chance” at 18 years old. Even when Christian Sanou, a Burkinabe coach, tries to convince him to come and train, the teenager prefers to refuse to concentrate on his studies. “It didn’t interest me. At the time, there was no example of a recognized athlete in the country.says the latter, finally letting himself be convinced by the promise to travel.
“We had to start from scratch”
But the youngster still lacks coordination and, for the first time, is overtaken in training. Determined, he trains during the holidays and downloads videos of the performances of the Briton Jonathan Edwards and the Frenchman Teddy Tamgho, at the cybercafé, for inspiration. “I was impressed to see that we could jump so far, I wanted to do better! »remembers the double African champion.
The following year, he watched his first Olympic Games on television, but regretted not seeing his country’s red and green flag flying in London (2012). He then made a promise to himself: to represent Burkina Faso at the next edition, and, he even promised his little brother, to stand on the podium one day! « Impossible »we repeat to him, because of his eighty feet and the lack of suitable training structures in his country.
But Hugues Fabrice Zongo redoubled his efforts and decided to follow a master’s degree at the University of Artois, in the north of France, in 2016. Expatriation, the cold, the long days… The Burkinabé arouses admiration of other students. “People often ask me how I manage to keep up. My secret is discipline and a lot of social sacrifices”slips the doctoral student who, after the laboratory of “eight to sixteen”continues with three hours of training in the evenings and on weekends.
Both in the field and in the lab, Hugues Fabrice Zongo likes to defy the laws of physics. This machine enthusiast likes to try to understand how electrical systems work and push the limits of the human body. Like in 2018, when Teddy Tamgho, the former triple jump world champion, took him under his wing and told him he had to “take it all back”because of the technical shortcomings accumulated because it was discovered late.
“We had to start from scratch, deconstruct, question, think about solutions”, explains the researcher. Teddy Tamgho estimates that he will have to work for a year and a half. In the end, it will only take four months. The young jumper, nicknamed “Jiren”, a character from the manga Dragon Ball embodying calm and power, is distinguished by his bursts of speed, touching the take-off board at 40.8 km/h and being able to run the 100 meters in 10 seconds and 70 hundredths (10’70”).
In Burkina, the course of “national hero” makes you dream. Each time he returns to the capital, Hugues Fabrice Zongo visits classes and holiday camps. Beyond sporting performance, his medals are above all a way for him to “to restore hope” to the youth of his country. “We lack models to build ourselves, I want to show that a Burkinabe can succeed, and for that that an objective must become a life mission, continue to fight despite the obstacles”advocates the athlete, who has just been named a goodwill ambassador for Unicef and is involved in an association to help with the education of children.
As the feeling of despair and helplessness grows among some young people in the face of jihadist violence over the past seven years, he hopes his prowess will show “another picture” of his country, who can guide them. “If they resign themselves, we risk losing a generation, we must continue to work, create, to illuminate the future while waiting for the storm to pass”, pleads the engineer who wishes, after his thesis, to return to develop his country and seek solutions to the energy deficit of Burkina, a landlocked country in the Sahel.
His other dream: to create a sport-study structure to allow young people to combine their passion with a school curriculum. In the meantime, Hugues Fabrice Zongo is preparing for the Paris Olympics in 2024. He hopes to win the gold medal there and see ” Succession “ whom he accompanies, like Bienvenu Sawadogo, specialist in the 400 meter hurdles, and Marthe Koala, the champion of the 100 meter hurdles and the long jump. They have just joined Teddy Tamgho’s team.