Mountain biker Adrien Niyonshuti is the first cyclist from Rwanda to compete in Games
Nobody else but Adrien Niyonshuti was Rwanda’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, yesterday evening, in London.
Adrien is a survivor of the 1994 genocide and a mountain biker with a bright future. At 25 years of age, he is one of the most famous people in Rwanda, and is often regarded as a hero, as he embodies the past and destiny, the drama and the renewal of his country.
“I’m very happy to be bearing the flag but I don’t feel any more special than the other athletes selected for the Games,” he said. Niyonshuti is the only cyclist on the Rwandan Olympic team and is joined by six other athletes who will take part in athletics, swimming and judo.
“Above all, I would like – as a result of these Olympic Games – that people think of my country in terms of sport and cycling in particular, even as simply a great nation,” continued Niyonshuti. “The first thing people think of at the moment is the genocide, but that was 18 years ago. I want people to concentrate on the positive aspects of my country.”
Rwandan cycling symbolizes this renewal particularly well. The national Tour, rated at 2.2 on the UCI calendar for the last four years, is the most popular sporting event in the country – even eclipsing football – and has a unifying effect on the nation. As for the national team, made up mostly of young survivors like Niyonshuti, it has in parallel moved from the regional level to become one of the best in Africa.
Aimable Bayingana, President of the Rwandan Cycling Federation, spoke of the honour bestowed on Niyonshuti as the opening ceremony approaches. “Adrien is like a son, for all of us: he honours those who love cycling and develop the sport here, and he embodies the values of the whole country.
“Adrien will achieve things at these Olympics that most other people cannot dream of.”
“Each time that Adrien is riding, Africa rides with him,” said Bayingana. “The whole continent will be on his side.”
Adrien lost almost his whole family in the genocide, in 1994. He rides to forget: “On the mountain bike,I can show myself really.”
Ten years ago, when Adrien Niyonshuti was fifteen, he entered a single-speed bike race in his hometown of Rwamagana, and won. His trophy was a radio, but his real prize was the discovery of an all-consuming passion for cycling, and five years ago, when the American cyclist Jock Boyer came to Rwanda to train a bike team, Adrien was in the first draft.
You can’t drive to the Gasthaus Spinas, a Swiss alpine lodge that sits about sixty-five hundred feet above sea level in the mountains above St. Moritz. Guests generally arrive by horse-drawn cart, or on foot. When Adrien Niyonshuti moved into the Gasthaus, a few weeks ago, he pedalled there on his mountain bike.
He was on his way to London, and it’s only a slight metaphorical stretch to say that he was making the entire journey by bike.
To qualify as an Olympian, Adrien had to come in fourth place in the African Continental Championship in 2009, and he did, as the first Rwandan ever to be signed on by an international professional cycling team: MTN Qhubeka.
From his base in Switzerland, where he made the Gasthaus Spinas his training camp, Adrien has been racing in recent weeks with the top mountain bikers in the world, and holding his own. One day, between official races, his coach and mentor, Jock, offered to take him on. Adrien tried to laugh him off, but Jock persisted. Years ago, Jock was the first American to ride in the Tour de France, and although he spends more time on a motorbike these days (he recently rode alone from Khartoum to Kigali, by way of Addis Ababa, a trip of more than four thousand kilometres, in nine days) he can still—in his mid-fifties—hammer the pedals with impressive power. But, to be sporting, Adrien gave Jock a ten-minute head start, a substantial advantage in a roughly ninety-minute race. Then Adrien set out after him, and finished five minutes ahead of him.
Nobody expects him to win when he races in London, on August 12th. His triumph is to be there. his Coach and Mentor Jock says: “He’s in a really good place right now,”.