Hugues Fabrice Zango won triple jump gold in Budapest to become Burkina Faso’s first world athletics champion

“My medal will bring more hope to the youth in the future. They will see that things are possible to be the best in the world, even if you come from Burkina Faso.”

In 2023 Hugues Fabrice Zango was a shining light for his West African homeland, where a population of more than 20 million people has grappled with unrest since two military coups in 2022.

In August, the 30-year-old provided positive headlines by becoming the country’s first athletics world champion, claiming gold in the triple jump with a leap of 17.64 metres in Budapest.

“I have some friends in the army who are fighting against terrorists,” Zango told BBC Sport Africa, referencing Burkinabe soldiers fighting insurgents in the north of the nation.

“When I got the title, they immediately shared their happiness with me. They say that what I did [gave] them energy to continue the fight.

“I want to be a symbol of hope. Hope is just like a muscle – we need to maintain it, to train it.”

On his return home from topping the podium in Hungary, Zango’s status was evident in the celebrations when he touched down in the country’s capital Ouagadougou.

He became the first sportsman to have the country’s highest honorary distinction – Officer of the Order of the Stallion – bestowed upon him for his achievements.

“I am just happy [for] the journey, about the work I did, about the man I [have] become, because I [have been] getting better since 2019,” Zango reflected.

“When you are a champion for your country everybody wants you to continue to bring them more medals, and more hope.”

Hugues Fabrice Zango was celebrated by being bestowed upon the country's highest honorary award
Zango received Burkina Faso’s highest honour from Capt Ibrahim Traore, the country’s President, in September

Zango is certainly a trailblazer for Burkinabe athletics.

His gold in Budapest was an improvement from a silver medal at last year’s World Championships in Eugene and a bronze in Doha in 2019.

In 2021 he won bronze at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, becoming his country’s first medallist at the Olympics.

He credits improved mental conditioning as playing a key part in his progress, having worked with a psychologist since 2019.

“I got to the Olympics with a strong body, but mentally I was not OK,” Zango said.

“I really worked on my mental strength with my psychologist to get ready for the World Championships in 2022. But unfortunately I got an injury and I got silver.

“This year when I [went] to the World Championships, my goal was getting gold because I was healthy.

“I was consistent so I knew that I was there to make history.”

Dr Zango

Hugues Fabrice Zango with his doctorate
Zango became Dr Hugues Fabrice Zango when he was awarded a PhD in electrical engineering on 22 December

Zango’s journey to the pinnacle of his sporting discipline is more extraordinary because he achieved it as a part-time athlete.

The Burkinabe was pursuing his athletic passion alongside an equally impressive academic pursuit, a doctorate in electrical engineering at Artois University in France.

The two different disciplines required him to find balance between the sand pit and the laboratory.

“When I am in my laboratory, I’m a student so I just focus on doing experiments,” he said.

“Then after, at 4pm, I start changing. I start being an athlete and don’t talk about equations.

“I just want to focus on athletics, and it’s helped me to keep a certain balance.”

Zango got an early Christmas present when he was awarded his doctorate on 22 December, fulfilling a childhood dream and capping a successful year.

However, it is his world triple jump title that stands out among his achievements.

“Being a world champion was more difficult for me than doing a PhD, because you need to be strong in the right moment to do the right thing,” Zango explained.

“It was a crazy journey with my studies and doing athletics. When I think back, I’m really proud of myself.”

As far as his academic achievements go, Zango hopes to one day take his expertise back home to Burkina Faso.

“I know that there is place for me there,” he said.

“It’s important for me to go back to bring my experience to [help] the growth of my country and continue what I did with athletics, and try to put Burkina Faso on the next level.”

Hugues Fabrice Zango in the laboratory
Zango spent many hours in the electrotechnical systems and environment laboratory in the town of Bethune while studying for his PhD

Breaking barriers

From January, Zango no longer has to split his time between his thesis and athletics.

The triple jump will take centre stage, and he already possesses a laser-like focus on clinching gold at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris following his triumph in Budapest.

“I just broke the last barrier in my head, it was to be a champion,” Zango explains.

“Now I am not afraid of my dream, so for me being an Olympic champion will be the end of everything. It’s the end of the book.”

The next page in Zango’s story is building towards performing in the French capital.

Yet his coach Teddy Tamgho, one of France’s great athletes, could also be competing alongside him in Paris.

The 2013 world triple jump champion is hoping to come out of retirement at the age of 34 for his home Games.

“He (Tamgho) really wants to be there because Teddy never participated as an athlete at the Olympics, because every time he got injured,” Zango said.

Tamgho, who missed the 2012 Olympics with an ankle injury and then the 2016 Games with a broken leg, is now training alongside Zango.

That means the relationship between coach and protege is now evolving, although the Burkinabe remains confident in his own ability.

“Sometimes I jump and when I finish, he jumps,” Zango explained.

“I tell him what I think about what he is doing, so I’m coaching him also. Even after four years of retirement he has some skills, so it’s interesting to see him jumping.

“But he knows that I’m the best right now.”

2013 World Champion Teddy Tamgho plans to come out of retirement for his home Olympics in Paris 2024
Teddy Tamgho, the 2013 triple jump world champion, could compete against Zango at the Paris Olympics

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