Cheick Sallah Cissé is on a mission, trying to win back an Olympic medal at the next Games in Paris 2024.
“The most important thing, first and foremost, is to qualify for the Olympics in Paris,” says Cisse.
“Then it’s to focus on trying to win another medal for Africa and my country.”
The Ivory Coast athlete has started 2023 very well. He has won all three of the events he has competed in.
“As an athlete, I have to say it’s such a great pleasure to win medal after medal like this,” he adds. “As an athlete, of course, this gives you confidence for the other competitions.”
But the real test will come at the World Championships in Azerbaijan, where the 29-year-old is looking to test himself against the best in the world to secure crucial ranking points which will, ultimately, help in qualifying for the Olympics next year.
“This is a very important competition,” adds. “I will try and get a medal and stay consistent throughout the year. But it’s not just about winning one medal once.”
A life changed in a second
As Cissé likes to remember, his life changed in a second, on the 19 August 2016. He beat British athlete Lutalo Muhammad, who was leading their fight until the very last second, to win a special Olympic gold medal in Rio.
Seven years may have passed since that memorable day, but the former Olympic champion understandably looks proudly back at that moment in his career.
“These are moments you can never forget,” he tells BBC Sport Africa. “These are moments you keep for life. It’s always a pleasure .
“These are the kind of moments that give you strength to continue at the same pace because as the saying goes, ‘the most important thing is not to become a champion but to stay a champion’. And when I think about moments like these, I want to live that out again.”
And it’s not only Cisse’s life that the Olympic title impacted, but also a whole generation of Ivorians and Africans who could identify themselves in him, believing that anything is possible.
“Young Ivorians recognised themselves in me”, says Cissé. “I went from being an ordinary athlete to becoming an icon and a role model.”
The support and recognition Cissé received from people in Ivory Coast and across Africa is what kept him motivated to persevere in the sport even when things didn’t go his way as in 2021 at the Tokyo Olympics.
“I saw the enthusiasm my medal in 2016 generated”, Cissé recalls. “I saw the enthusiasm among the African youth and the Ivorian youth. I really want to make these young people dream more.
“It’s a pleasure to see that our work is also giving a chance to young Africans to be excellent in their own thing. This is my strength and my objective.”
A new man…and a bit heavier
Many things have changed for Cissé since he won his Olympic gold medal.
He moved weight category from -80kg to +80kg and, since 2022, he is regularly competing with the +87kg.
“I am now competing with the heavyweights,” he says. “I changed category because I’m 1.92m and I had started in the -80kgs around 2013. As time went by and I got more muscles, I got older and my body changed.
“I think my body needed me to change category because sometimes I had to lose almost 10kg before a competition and when you do that, and then fight, it’s not good and you can even catch disease more easily.
“I can thank my coach – Juan Antonio Ramos – for all the work we did in changing strategy and find my markers in this new category. I can also thank my teammates, like the Gabonese champion, Anthony Obame, who was already fighting in the heavyweight category and Ruth Gbagbi.”
On a personal level, things also changed for Cissé. He married his wife, Dominique, in December 2022.
“It’s important to have that special someone as an athlete, as you are constantly under pressure with competitions, your world ranking and qualifying,” adds Cissé.
“You need someone who is sweet and who can understand you, who can support you, and give you good advice, someone who can give you a lot of love.”
Cissé will compete at his first World Championships in the +87kg in Baku on Sunday 4 June.