Big Setbacks Fuel Francine Niyonsaba’s Even Bigger Comebacks

She’s turned all the challenges she’s faced into additional fuel for her competitive fire, qualifying for the 2021 Olympics in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters.

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After Francine Niyonsaba, 28, won the 5,000-meter Diamond League final in September, she sent a message to the world on Instagram.

“They tried to stop me. Tried to end my dreams. But how could I allow them to snatch my dreams away?” she wrote. “So I worked hard. Resisted those forces who tried to stop me. And here I am!”

Niyonsaba, who competes for Burundi, was the 800-meter silver medalist at the 2016 Rio Games. But since then, she had to make a difficult decision: either move up to the 5,000 and 10,000 meters or take measures to lower her naturally occurring testosterone levels. As an athlete who has a condition called DSD (Difference in Sex Development), in which hormones, genes, and reproductive organs can present female and male characteristics, World Athletics policies mandate that she take hormone-suppressing drugs in order to contest events from 400 meters to the mile.

“For me, it’s about discrimination,” Niyonsaba said during an interview with the Olympic Channel, later adding, “For sure I didn’t choose to be born like this. What am I? I am created by God, so if somebody has more questions about it maybe [they] can ask God. I love myself. I will still be Francine. I will not change.”

RELATED: DSD Athletes: What Does it Mean And What Are the World Athletics Rules?

After her private medical records were leaked, Niyonsaba said publicly in 2019 she has hyperandrogenism, which means her body produces more testosterone than women without the condition.

She’s turned all the challenges she’s faced into additional fuel for her competitive fire, qualifying for the 2021 Olympics in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters. In the qualifying round of the 5K, officials disqualified her for lane infringement—something she didn’t remember doing nor did many spectators see happen. It felt, again, like she was targeted.

“But I am not devastated. Because nothing could stop me. The more one tries to stop me, the stronger my comeback,” Niyonsaba said afterward. And she did come back, placing fifth in the 10,000 meters, setting a national record in 30:41.93, and vowing to compete again at the 2024 Paris Games.

Other DSD athletes, like 2016 Olympic 800-meter gold medalist Caster Semenya of South Africa, were unable to qualify for Tokyo in the longer distances. Margaret Wambui of Kenya, who had won the 800-meter bronze in 2016, stopped competing altogether.

But Niyonsaba insisted on looking forward and excelling in the events she was, by the rules, allowed to race (the research that World Athletics used to form its policy has since been corrected, noting that the results were not “confirmatory evidence” and exploratory in nature). In 2021, she went on to set a 2,000-meter world record in 5:21.56. She won the Prefontaine Classic 2-Mile in 9:00.75 and set a 5,000-meter personal best in 14:25.34.

“I did what I had to do,” Niyonsaba said after that Diamond League win, joking that if World Athletics tries to impose more restrictions on the events in which she’s allowed to compete, she’ll simply move to the pole vault or the high jump.

“My perseverance is my answer to those who want to stop me,” she says.

This profile was first published in the Winter 2022 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Women Who Lead: Power Women of 2022” which celebrates 15 women who are reshaping the running industry for the better. You can see the full list of honorees here.