Rwanda has chosen a cyclist to be their flag-bearer for the opening ceremony: Adrien Niyonshuti, a survivor of the 1994 genocide, and a mountain biker with a bright future.
When Sir Chris Hoy enters the Olympic Stadium on Friday, you could say that he will be dazzled by the power of history. Billions of eyes will then peer, between shadow and blinding floodlights, at the last of the 204 teams expected to take part in the parade of nations – Great Britain. Hoy, the Scottish track rider, whose photo decorates breakfast cereal packets, will be leading the team, proudly carrying the flag of the host nation. This honour is always unique, and in the past, few delegations have chosen a cyclist as their flag-bearer.
Adrien Niyonshuti is also part of the chosen few. At 25 years old, 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.
Refusing to bathe in the glory, this mountain bike specialist chooses his words carefully: “I’m very happy to be bearing the flag,” he explains, “but I don’t feel any more special than the other athletes selected for the Games.” There are actually seven team members from Rwanda; 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,” continues Niyonhuti. “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.”
Niyonshuti will always hold in memory the suffering endured during these massacres that, in the space of a few weeks, killed 800,000 down in the valleys in this small East African country. His six brothers and friends died, while he – as a young boy – hid in tiny holes in the ground to survive. Once Rwanda had been liberated and was at peace once again, it became possible to begin the essential reconstruction of the country.
Today, it is one of the safest and most modern destinations on the continent. The faithful speak of redemption, while the economists highlight the strong growth (+8.8% in 2011), and those who left the country and then returned have discovered a vast, open building site.
Rwandan cycling symbolizes this renewal particularly well. The national Tour, rated at 2.2 on the UCI calendar over the last four years, is the most popular sporting event in the country – even eclipsing football – and has a unifying effect on the nation, leaving trails of joy in the towns and villages. As for the national team, made up mostly of young survivors like Niyonshuti, it has in parallel moved from regional level to become one of the best in Africa.
Aimable Bayingana, President of the Rwandan Cycling Federation (Ferwacy), feels the emotion 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. Children identify with him, and many would like to take up cycling, but unfortunately we don’t have the means to do this to the extent that we would like. Adrien will achieve things at these Olympics that most other people cannot dream of.”
In his preparation for London, Niyonshuti has succeeded in mobilizing all those people who have supported him from the beginning: the Scott Swisspower Mountain Bike Team, led by Thomas Frischknecht, who welcomed him to a training camp in Switzerland in June; his American trainer Jock Boyer, who has built up the national team and spotted new talent since 2007; and the South African team MTN-Qhubeka. After he had an experience at the UCI Continental Cycling Centre, the group labelled UCI offered the rider a professional contract four years ago. One Olympics later, and his “crowning” is complete.
Niyonshuti is now hoping to take part in the Tour de France. His results on the road are characterized by courage and an impressive show of strength on mountain passes. At the end of 2010, he came in 4th in the African Championships time trials, behind Daniel Teklehaimanot (Eritrea), Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg (South Africa) and Azzedine Lagab (Algeria).
“Each time that Adrien is riding, Africa rides with him,” adds the President of the Federation. “The whole continent will be on their side.”
In London, Niyonshuti will be once again telling his story to journalists, as he has done during the last few weeks for CNN and the BBC. He will recount his sufferings but also his dreams. On Friday evening, he will fulfil one of them when he raises the blue, yellow and green flag – with a bright sun in the right-hand corner – with the whole world watching.
*Apart from Chris Hoy (Great-Britain) and Adrien Niyonshuti (Rwanda), the other cyclists who will bear their countries’ flags in the 2012 Games are Marion Pajon (Colombia), Lee Wai Sze (Hong Kong, Chine) and Evelyn Garcia (El Salvador).