Venuste Niyongabo

Burundi is a dot in the middle of the African continent. Agonized by decades of tribal conflict between Hutus and Tutsi, and one of the world’s poorest countries, the former French colony is not a sporting hotbed.

Despite the challenges, the International Olympic Committee finally recognized Burundi when it established a National Olympic Committee (NOC), allowing this landlocked and resource-poor country to join the Olympics at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

New countries rarely do well in the competitions. Their’s is an opportunity to compete, experience and learn. In fact, 75 of the current 206 countries with National Olympic committees have not won an Olympic medal, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Honduras, Libya, Nicaragua and Rwanda.

But Vénuste Niyongabo helped Burundi beat all the odds, and has given hope to all nations bereft of Olympic glory. He was a 1500-meter runner, a rising star on the international circuit in the 1990s, and in 1996. When the IOC recognized Burundi’s NOC, Niyongabo was indeed considered a favorite for the Atlanta Olympics. But in a nod to an aging compatriot, Niyongabo gave up his spot in the 1500 meters to Dieudonné Kwizera. If Burundi had had a NOC prior to 1996, it is likely that Kwizera would have competed at the Seoul and/or Barcelona Games. Thanks to Niyongabo, the 800-meter specialist became an Olympian for the first time.

Niyongabo moved up to the 5,000-meter competition instead, an event he had run in only twice previously. Although he had won both, he was not favored in Atlanta. And in fact, sat towards the back while the Kenyans led for much of the race. But win he did, and convincingly. Here’s how the New York Times described it in 1996:

With 200 meters left, his (Niyongabo’s) lead was comfortable over the eventual silver medalist Paul Bitok of Kenya and the eventual bronze medalist Khalid Boulami of Morocco. When Niyongabo crossed the finish line, Dionisi was already hopping up and down in the stands, waving a Burundian flag. Before long, that flag was being waved on an Olympic track for the first time in history.

In the end, Niyongbo put his victory in context, reflecting on the decades of internecine conflict in his tiny country. “All I want is peace for my country,” Niyongabo said. “I hope this can help the healing.”