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Mariama Jallow: A rising track star hoping to conquer the World …but rendered helpless by lack of sponsor

“Maybe one day I will conquer not only Africa but become a world champion”,

came the confident reply from a shy-looking Mariam offering to answer questions of her goals in track and Field.

The 22-year-old talks in the aftermath of a jaw-dropping performance in which she broke Gambia’s record in marathon in Kassel in the women’s 42.2km.

Gasping for air after crossing the finish line, the 22-year-old proudly unfurled Gambia’s four-coloured flag, enthusiastically waving to the crowd after securing fourth best in a race fronted by Ethiopia’s Sintayehu Kibelo.

Jallow is one of the West African nation most revered female long distance runners of her time and her shattering of the national record in that category, signals the dawn of a new era for Gambia in future competitions.

A resident of Essau, a small town in north-western Gambia, Mariama hails from the North Bank, a region boasting a population of 6,670.

Born in a community where tradition is strongly observed and women’s involvement in any sort of sport is deeply frowned upon, Jallow withstood the odds.

For this, Gambia has only her stubbornness to weather the storm to thank for to be boasting of such an arsenal at their disposal.

She first burst onto the racing scene winning the much coveted Brufut Marathon (BMR), her first major tournament in 2008, a title of an annual run she retained consecutively the subsequent two years.

Buoyed by how plans have turned out, the starlet –determined to showcase her potentials –took the challenge of representing her school Gambia Senior Secondary School.

Gambia Athletics Association (GAA) ubiquitous scouts surprisingly took no notice of the then teenager’s capabilities with an invitation to join the athletics team only coming much later when she got accepted in the country’s police force track and field team, having finished secondary schooling.

That about set the pattern and soon the GAA came bothering the police outfit requesting she joins up with rest of the national squad at their training centre, the Independence Stadium.

That move only sought to improve her with renewed vigor. She got off to a flying start in 2009 season scooping what was there to be won in BMR. Her timing won her spot to partake in the United Kingdom Cancer Research Run, a charity race she would later miss out on for reasons yet to be made public to this day.

Mariama placed that agonizing episode behind her and fast forward four years on, her career took an upward trajectory, getting to compete in the Sheffield Half Marathon, and as is her penchant to thrive, recorded a 1:22:08secs consequently making her the fastest female runner of her Orange Brand which comprised a whopping twenty thousand athletes.

Fourteen days later, the national history books got rewritten with Jallow the architect again doing 37:25 seconds in the 10km road race in the Bupa Greater Manchester Run.

Following these heights, like one drugged with success, this raw talent will march on reeling off top spots in the 5 and 10km Farafenni Marathon, a provincial town south of the Gambia’s border with Senegal.

Fixtures in the Leeds half Marathon and a return to Brufut Marathon 21km were too tempting to turn down. And, in spite of threats she faced in the shape of soaring number of competitors, the then 20-year-old did not bat an eyelid crossing the finish line first.

For her ability to thrive in the unlikeliest of odds, doing and undoing records have come to be synonymous with this budding talent, kicking the 21km national record timing of 1:30mins off its perch for a new one of 1:21.20 secs. She returned from Dakar Senegal to a rambunctious heroine welcome after her mesmerizing exploits that year, last summer.

For a career spanning not long ago, the 22-year-old has come to be loved by all and is considered as not only a national heroine but something of a cult figure owing to her display of consistency from formatives years.

As recent as September 18, she pulled off the wow factor by earning Gambia place for the 2017 London World Athletics Championship via the standard Qualification Timing (QT). The Smiling Coast as is the country dubbed, has never before managed to secure a QT in the event of long distance running.

Biting problems

Aside from the joy of globetrotting in the UK dozen times, Germany, Kenya and now Holland, there lies catalogue of hiccups dogging Gambian athletes.

World beaters like Jaysuma Saidy-Ndure, Gambian-turned Norwegian runner is one of a blizzard of athletes from the tiny nation of 1.5 million population. Saidy was one time Gambia’s brightest. However, the 32-year-old turned his back on his birth land ten years ago opting to race for Norway.

The Scandinavian country went over-the-top with delight of landing their man but as was the case with immigration laws there, the former European Athlete of the Month nominee needed to wait for five years to be granted Norwegian citizenship.

Gambia authorities –ministry of Youth and Sports, Gambia Athletics Association and Gambia National Olympic Committee –expressed ‘shock’ at having to lose a ‘national hero’ and ‘national treasure’ in Jaysuma and went on to lodge an application aiming to block Saidy from competing for Norway for three years – a request granted by the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF).

Considering Jays was a hot prospect bound to hit the big stage sooner or later, Gambia shook heaven and earth to retain him but for fund shortage in contrast to Norway’s ridiculous bumper offer, stood no chance whatsoever to talk Saidy into rescinding his decision. The wrangling got resolved a year later on a strict condition the athlete heads a fourteen-day camp for emerging athletes in his country of birth.

Incidents of Gambian athletes shunning the motherland to compete for wealthier nations are hardly new. In 2011, 17-year-old track star Momodou Lamin Kujabi left the team camp unannounced and months later declared he’ll be defecting to race for Canada. Kujabi’s dream did not see light of day after he called time on his career for hustle.

There is also the story of female sprinters Fatou Tiyana and Saruba Colley, who like Kujabi, refused to return to Banjul after major competitions in Germany and London respectively. These spectres of ascendance are a culmination of paltry pay fees forked out as salary to athletes, sheer lack of encouragement and sponsor.

And Mariama sits teetering on the brink with a glowing career threatening to nosedive into the abyss all for lack of a sponsor.

She harbours the instincts of not only surpassing idol Ethiopia’s long distance track athlete and outdoor 5000 metres world record holder Tirunesh Dibaba Kenene but become a world champion in future.

Jallow, fighting to see her dreams come true, has been offered invitation to train in Kenya, home to long distance world champions but for lack of sponsor is rendered helpless.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]‘I really need to be supported. I want a sponsor to put Gambia on the map. This is an issue affecting Gambian and African athletes,’[/perfectpullquote]

the 22-year-old tells me just after finishing first in her latest 7km race in Holland today in which she broke yet another record.

Issues of these nature a near perpetual hiccup dogging not only Gambia but African countries and gifts cash-rich Arabian and European nations presented chance to drain the continent of its talent pool whom they literally throw stark of cash at to lure them.

A modicum of talent with an insatiable drive for win.


Featured Photo: Courtesy of mariama’s facebook page

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