Our Woman In Paris: A giant leap for the city's new icon

Share

Her image is plastered around every Métro station in town, but the identity of the athlete chosen to adorn the official poster for the World Athletics Championships, which start this Saturday in Paris, has until recently remained a mystery.

Her image is plastered around every Métro station in town, but the identity of the athlete chosen to adorn the official poster for the World Athletics Championships, which start this Saturday in Paris, has until recently remained a mystery.

Now curious Parisians are beginning to unravel the story behind this faceless icon. What is extraordinary is that she's neither French, nor a world champion, and she's using her moment in the spotlight to champion the cause of athletes from the developing world unable to compete in what is set to be the biggest sporting event of the year.

Maria Conjungo, the 100-metre hurdler turned poster-girl, has come a long way herself. The 27-year-old grew up in Saint Denis, the suburb better known for its high-rises and crime than for top-level athletics, after her parents arrived from the Central African Republic (CAR) when she was two years old. "I got into sport thanks to a programme for disadvantaged youth run by the businessman Bernard Tapie," she says. "But it was my brother Mikael, who was a French discus champion, who told me to try hurdling at his club."

The image of Conjungo is from a book, Femme Athlètes, published by the charity Sport Sans Frontières to raise money to send equipment and coaches to developing countries.

While Conjungo admits that "the only thing I remember from the CAR is throwing a dog down a well", Africa is close to her heart. "Imagine, a woman, an African woman, chosen for the poster of the third biggest sporting event in the world. This poster is a sign of respect for the continent," she says. "I am very proud of it."

Conjungo runs for Saint Denis, where she works as a sales rep. As a dual national, she will represent the CAR at the World Championships because "it is easier to get selected". She says: "We usually go as a tiny delegation. There were two of us at the World Championships in 1999."

She would like it to be otherwise: "There is enormous sporting potential in African countries, but most of the focus in Europe tends to be on humanitarian aid. I hope this initiative will raise money to support future African champions who may be able to train, run and represent their own countries internationally. This photograph of me can't do any harm."

"I hope it will help women's athletics too," she adds. "Women athletes are often portrayed as square-shouldered with huge thighs and no personality. This picture shows that we take care of our bodies."

And as Paris's new black, female icon, that's the least of the hurdles that Conjungo is clearing.

Cistercian brothers doing it for themselves

The abbey of Notre-Dame-de-Bellefontaine rises amid a tranquil environment of weeping willows and the sound of the shuffling feet of 34 monks. But also rising at this centre for prayer and reflection west of Paris is the pling-pling ring of cash tills.

"Our pre-tax profit last year was €458,000 [about £320,000]," says Brother Robert, manning the checkout at the Monastic shop in the grounds of the Cistercian monastery. "Outside our hours of prayer, we work four or five hours a day, six days a week, without holidays," he boasts.

Monastic - a chain of monastery shops selling products that are made by 220 French religious communities - was created 12 years ago after a group of French monks, most of them engaged in cheese-making and small-scale honey production, decided to hit back at a television campaign for Chaussée Aux Moines cheese "which has nothing to do with monks and was a blatant case of our image being exploited by a large food company", says Brother Robert.

Now, says Brother Robert, the top-selling Monastic product is Alexion, an energy drink made from 52 plants by the Aiguebelle monastery and retailing at €9.95 (about £7). The second best- selling product is a mandarine liqueur from the Lérins monastery (€15) (about £10). Face cream, biscuits, coffee from a community in Africa, nougat and handmade stationery also make it into the top 10.

French pop eats itself

George Michael did it in Britain. Now veteran French singer Michel Sardou is taking his record company, Tréma, to court for cramping his style. Sardou, whose long career includes hits like "La Maladie d'Amour" and "Le Connemara", says that if image-marketing continues to dominate the European music industry, then there will soon be no place for anyone who does not fit the Anglo-American mould.

"France, after Maurice Chevalier, managed to create about five international stars in each generation of musicians. But that is all over now," Sardou says. "The majors are under pressure to make money and so you can understand that they go for formula music." The answer, he says, lies with the artists. "Good music will always sell. We have got to be more creative." He promises a new single, in early 2004, to be followed by an album, which will include off-cuts from studio sessions, laughs, interviews and even "a flavour of a song that did not make it on to the final cut".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The BBC headquarters at New Broadcasting House is illuminated at night in London, England.  

We can no longer justify paying the license fee when the BBC wastes so much money on expenses

Mira Bar Hillel
Meg Ryan faking an orgasm as Sally in 1989's When Harry Met Sally  

The power of the female orgasm — why women should always come first

Sophie Holloway
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits