Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A Police Officer, to the Poorest Athlete then to Africa’s Fastest –The Evolution of Gambia’s Gina Bass

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By Sulayman Bah

Looking uneasy and muttering a prayer inaudibly under her breath, she bent to take up position in lane four. Flanking her on the left of the 200m All African Games women’s final was Marie Josee Ta Lou, the feared Ivorian and the continent’s best, until last weekend, in the 100m and 200m events.

Josee boasted a combined seven gold, five silver and eight bronze medals in the run up to the last round, determined to add this year’s 200m to her trophy cabinet.

The stakes were high in the face of mounting pressure. But unruffled, Gina mustered the courage to stand her ground and ended up defying the giant of Africa – Tallou – in an epic race that saw her rewriting the national records of The Gambia.

Far from the emotional type that would breakdown in sheer delight overwhelmed at attaining a towering mark, Gina merely waved occasionally and hugged having reduced 30-year-old Ta Lou to a desolate figure who went limping of some sort upon finishing not second but third!

It was that volcanic eruption type of victory catching its later celebrant off guard. Bass will sure be pinching herself in disbelief considering she began the season on a less than prepossessing note with a hampering leg injury.

Pundits have been predicting outcome of the race with most ruling out an upset happening, tipping the Ivorian to sashay her way to gold with relative ease. So, when Gina shattered the tall order, observers gulped down their earlier predictions with the media making most of it with catchy headings. One screamed: ‘The Giant Iroko Tree Has Fallen.’

Seasoned watchers of Marie Josee will have the world believing her deposition is one of those seldom occurrences taking most unawares.

However, the truth though is, Friday’s shock has been in the offing from the moment Ta Lou chose to take a then budding Bass for a training partner between 2016 and 2017 at the High Performance Centre in Dakar where the Gambian queen of tracks is on scholarship.

24-year-old Gina has, in the process, also qualified for the World Athletics Championship in Doha whose standard timing for the 200m is 23:02 seconds following her breath taking 22:58 seconds feat.

‘I’m going to thank my coach because he is really a great coach for me. We worked for it! The preparation was fine. My target was to make the standard for the World Games. I know running with Ta Lou is going to help. She has been faster than me in both 100m and 200m and running with her really motivates me and makes me to push harder,’ Gina says in the aftermath of her second-place finish, a day before the 200m last lap.

A Police Officer-cum Athlete

Back at home, the Gambian sensation works in the security unit in the police department with a couple of her colleague national teammates drawn from the prisons sector.

However, for the hectic schedules involved in the sport, her attention is wired to only training and keeping her fitness levels. It’s for such a reason that she and other well-performing compatriots are linked to focus their energies at training with clubs in Senegal where facilities are at least of a standard bearing compared to Gambia’s sole stadium – a 34-year-old Chinese built structure devoid of state-of-the-art facilities.

While there, she often teams up with Gambia’s athletics captain Adama Jammeh to workout especially in France ahead of major international events.

The Making of Gina

A slim model-like black complexioned athlete, Gina emerged at a time Gambia were recuperating from tremor of losing a gem in Saruba Colley who absconded in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 Summer London Olympics.

Winning over coaches’ trust, she was shoved to fill in the boots of Colley. Swiftly, a transition began fuelled by soaring agitation to push beyond limits while seeking to improve at the passing of each event she dabbles in.

Aimed at upping her timing, the 24-year-old would compete male counterparts in training sessions particularly Adama Jammeh, a thing that has jelled the duo, giving birth to a solid comradeship.

‘I call her my training partner. Sometimes when she cries, I cry too. I have never had doubts in Gina in whatsoever she is doing in her career. I know one day she will be that world Champion that she wants,’ Jammeh says in a previous interview.

There certainly is no reward without toiling, an adage that Gina has come to epitomize.

Notable line of improvements could be traced at a glance of her statistics spanning from her international debut run in France at the World Youth Games in Lille 2011.

Her emergence to relevance coincided with a nation’s longing for hero. Suwaibou Sanneh, one-time Gambia’s man-of-the moment, faded to oblivion on the back of a heart-stopping semi-finals display during the London 2012 Games. Adama was tipped his natural successor but Gina gatecrashed him by her wowing performances to bask in the glory.

Today, she is not only a national record holder in the women’s 100m and 200m, but Africa’s fastest.

Prior to this year’s All-Africa Games, she’d claimed bronze in the African Senior Championship South Africa with a 22:92sec, bettering that with gold touch in the 100m of the Islamic Solidarity Games in Baku on 11.56 sec preceded by the London Games in the same year, 2017, the Commonwealth Games in Australia twelve months on and the African Championships in Nigeria.

In the modern game, award winners are feted with an elevation. For top athletes, it comes in the form of fleet of cars, mansions, an improved deal from company sponsors, mostly kit-suppliers completed by a jaw-dropping salary. You’d expect this be at Gina’s disposal with her latest accomplishment. This sadly, is far from the reality, with the Gambian sensation, one of the poorest, taking home a wage of no more than US$100 Foroyaa Sportunderstands.

Paltry sums doled out to athletes from their African federation or governments have gone on to cost the continent 207 athletes who’d defected, dumping their country of birth to run for wealthier European or Arab nations whose proposal of millions of dollars and citizenship status is too alluring to turn down.

This conundrum partly explains the abscondence of Modou Lamin Kujabi in 2011, Fatou Tianna, Saruba Colley with Gambia losing close to 20 athletes in over an 18-year period.

There are fears Gina could end up heading that lane or dump the nation for a well-to-do country if government fails to motivate athletes.

‘In my country, they call me the poorest Olympian but I accept it. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a house. The (Gambia) government don’t treat athlete like the way they treat footballers. They give them (footballers) lot of money but for us we suffer before getting the allowance that they (government) do give us. There is a moment that you feel like “Why I’m doing this because I’m not getting anything from it?” So, you feel like leaving but because you love the sport so you just continue,’ Bass broods.

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