Hugues Fabrice Zango had his targets clearly spelt out for the next three major championships – “Gold in Eugene this year, Gold in Budapest next year, and Gold in Paris in 2024.”
The jumper has remained highly motivated since he took bronze at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, his country’s first podium finish at the event.
At the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021, Zango, who has just finished studying for his PhD in Electrical engineering, leaped his way into Burkinabe hearts with his nation’s first ever Olympic medal.
It was a bronze that confirmed his towering ambitions in a sport that was relatively unknown in the west African nation until he started peaking.
The silver in Oregon fell short of his expectations but he created history again, for his country and a continent.
“I was motivated to win gold, but there's not much left in my legs,” Zango told World Athletics.
“Looking at the season, I was a bit off my regular performance. I went out there to explore. To manage 17.55m is good.”
He has secured his position as his Burkina Faso's top field athlete, and Africa’s best triple jumper. Africa has had only two medallists in the events: Ajayi Agbebabku, the Nigerian who took bronze in Helsinki 1983, and Zango.
Fast rise: From competitor to contender
Zango has proved to be a very fast learner. In about a decade he has transformed from being just a competitor to a significant contender.
His first major athletics competition was at the 2013 Universiade. And in 2015, when he took silver at his second Universiade, his country’s first ever medal at the University Games, he began carrying the expectation of his nation on his shoulders.
Whenever he lined up for his drill at competitions, Zango was always the young man with the unfamiliar green, red, and yellow star of the Burkinabe flag.
But after fouling each of his three jumps at his debut Track and Field Worlds at Beijing 2015, and failing to make the cut at Rio 2016, Zango was battered.
Still, he believed in his potential in a sport that very few in his country understood.
In an interview with the Olympic Channel in 2020, he shared how he made the switch from taekwondo to the field event.
“I started athletics a bit by accident. The major sports in Burkina Faso are football and cycling. You don’t hear a lot about athletics in Burkina Faso. I started with taekwondo and then I dropped it. I really liked combat sports.
“In 2011, I was scouted to take part in a school competition. During that event, a coach from the Stade du 4 Aout, one of the only stadiums with an athletics track in the country, believed I could make a good jumper.
“I started training with him in 2012 up until 2015.”
His move to France in the Olympic year, to begin training like a professional, paid off.
Linking up with Teddy Tamgho, the 2013 world champion from France, hugely boosted his career.
Zango steadily began climbing the jumpers’ ladder, plainly, from the bottom rung.
He won an African title in 2018, and a historic medal for Burkina Faso at the 2019 Worlds. His first major jump medal fell short.
“I am happy I got a medal, but I was coming here for the gold. Bronze is disappointing because I know my capabilities,” he told Olympic Channel after his 17.66m in Doha, the furthest leap by an African in the triple jump.
Flying high: world indoor record
The 29-year-old reached a new pinnacle in 2021.
He leapt to the indoor triple jump world record of 18.07m which made him the first-ever African world record holder in a jumping event. He jumped 15 centimetres more than the previous record set by his coach Tamgho in 2011.
Zango sported a confident look after the world record that affirmed his belief that he was a serious challenger to Jonathan Edwards' outdoor record mark of 18.29m from the 1995 worlds in Gothenburg.
"They call me 'record man'; for me, the most important thing is the world record. This is what I want to reach."
“Usain Bolt took the sport to another level. He went over the human limits. And that’s what I want now. To improve the world record," said the African record-holder who is ranked 17th in the All-time list from his 2021 jump of 17.82m.
He proved himself a talent with third place in Tokyo, the best bronze medal that could ever be won. The bronze felt like gold for the 20 million Burkinabes who had never had any athlete climb the Games podium in 10 appearances.
“When you say Hugues Fabrice Zango the triple jumper, most of the people know me. Now people have started to understand and follow athletics, triple jump [in Burkina Faso]. I am quite famous.”
The silver at Hayward Field in Orgeon22 in a season-best of 17.55m marks another career-high. The best performance by an African in the men’s triple jump at the worlds or Olympics should enhance his popularity.
After shrugging off an injury that he picked up in training earlier in the year, the three-time Continental champion had eyed a bigger landing on the sand.
“My target is to be a gold medallist because I already got a bronze. Normally you have to pass by silver, but I’m a jumper, so I have to jump silver and go straight to gold medallist, so I want this for this year and for the next year, and in Paris," he said in an interview before worlds.
Portugal’s Olympic champion Pedro Pichardo leapt to the winning mark of 17.95m in Eugene, with China’s Zhu Yaming taking bronze.
Zango’s other focus this year was finishing off his PhD in Lille which he hopes will get him closer to his other dream of becoming one of the first indigenous engineering professors in his home country.
Dr Zango’s golden dreams live on.