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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Out of comfort zone, Niyonsaba makes mark despite misstep

If not for a misstep, and if fate was kinder, Niyonsaba would have been rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest 5,000 metres runners in Monday's final.

Written by Nihal Koshie |
Updated: July 31, 2021 12:59:46 pm
Burundi’s Francine NiyonsabaFrancine Niyonsaba finishes a heat in the women’s 5,000-meter run at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Just being in Tokyo was a triumph for Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba. Finishing fourth in the second heats of the 5,000 metres and qualifying for the final completed an unlikely comeback. She was living a dream for a few minutes after the race at the Olympic Stadium. The joy, however, was short-lived.

When she entered the mixed zone, ‘DQ’ flashed against her name, indicating she had been disqualified. A lane infringement ended the dream, but Niyonsaba was “not devastated.” In a tweet, she urged supporters to cheer for her during the 10k race next Saturday. “The more one tries to stop me, the stronger is my comeback,” she posted.

Rewind to Rio 2016: Niyonsaba was second in the 800 metres, behind two-time Olympic Champion from South Africa, Caster Semenya. Kenya’s Margaret Wambui was third. None of them will be defending their medals five years later at the postponed Games. All three were deemed ineligible to participate in their favourite event because of rules which put a cap on testosterone levels for women athletes. Eligibility rules, enforced in 2019 by World Athletics, were applicable to only events from 400 metres to a mile.

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Semenya unsuccessfully challenged the regulations, but was not fast enough to qualify for the 5,000m race. Wambui has called for a third category for athletes having differences of sex development (DSD). She too isn’t in Tokyo.

Undeterred by the regulations which have ended careers of many middle-distance athletes, Niyonsaba successfully plotted her way back via the much longer race.

If not for a misstep, and if fate was kinder, Niyonsaba would have been rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest 5,000 metres runners in Monday’s final.

The 28-year-old could have participated in the 800m by taking medication to reduce testosterone levels (needs to be below 5 nanomoles/per liter). Instead, at an age at which changing events is extremely difficult, and a vast difference in distance to be covered on the track, Niyonsaba stepped out of her comfort zone.

‘Challenge no barrier’

In the first week of June, in only her second 5,000m race ever, Niyonsaba crossed the Olympic standard of 15:10.00, running 14:54.38 at the Meeting de Montreuil in France. “A challenge is not a barrier. It’s an opportunity to do better,” she had tweeted afterwards.

Niyonsaba isn’t the only athlete whose road to the Olympics had become harder because of the eligibility regulations for female classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development or DSD).

Earlier this month, two Namibian 400 metre runners were told by their Olympic committee that they won’t be able to compete in the one-lap race because of the regulations. Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, both 18, had posted the second and third fastest timings in the world this year.

Mboma clocked 48.54 seconds in Poland, an under-20 world record and the seventh-fastest time ever, before being told that the 400 metres was no longer an option. Mboma was the favourite to win the gold with world champion Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain serving a two-year doping ban.

Switching events

Like Niyonsaba, they too will be in action at the Tokyo Olympics but not in their preferred event.

They will be competing in the 200 metres, an event with no cap on testosterone levels. Masilingi is 34th fastest in the world and Mboma 35th in the 200m sprint.

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe had clarified that DSD athletes were not being seen as cheats but rules were made to ensure a level-playing field.

“As the International Federation for our sport we have a responsibility to ensure a level playing field for athletes. Like many other sports we choose to have two classifications for our competition – men’s events and women’s events. This means we need to be clear about the competition criteria for these two categories. Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes,” Coe had said in a statement.

For athletes like Niyonsaba, Mboma and Masilingi, just competing internationally means crossing more hurdles than others.

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