With her performances in 2021, the Burundi has impressively moved up from 800m to longer distances. But will her record-breaking feats accelerate change which could end her career?
The message dropped into my email inbox. My request to interview Francine Niyonsaba had been approved, but with one condition – I was not allowed to ask her about the increasingly hot topic of differences in sex development (DSD).
We might not have spoken about the subject directly, but it never felt far away during the conversation and there has barely been a performance from the Burundian this year which has gone by without a related comment being made.
That is because those performances have been so good. She became the first athlete who identifies as having DSD to officially break a world record when clocking 5:21.26 for 2000m to take over two seconds from the former mark.
That she is running further, of course, is not through choice. The two-time world indoor champion as well as Olympic and world silver medallist for 800m can no longer compete at her favoured event under the World Athletics rules, upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which came into force in 2019 and were famously challenged by Caster Semenya.
They decree that DSD athletes are not allowed to compete internationally between 400m and a mile unless they take medication to reduce their high levels of testosterone.
Niyonsaba’s performances – she was also fifth in the Olympic 10,000m final in Tokyo in what was just her second time racing the distance – and those of the Olympic silver medal-winning, world junior record-breaking sprinter Christine Mboma over 200m have raised questions as to whether or not the rules should widen out to other events.
As Sean Ingle of The Guardian wrote, those athletes are “faced with a devilish catch-22. The faster she [Mboma] runs, the more she provides evidence that she has an unfair advantage as an athlete with DSD”.
Understandably, Niyonsaba does not want to fuel any fire but, at the same time, she is very clearly making a point.
“They tried to stop me. Tried to end my dreams,” she tweeted after her 5000m Diamond League victory in Zurich. “But how could I allow them to snatch my dreams away? So I worked hard and resisted those forces who tried to stop me. And here I am!”
Speaking with her, there is an apparent determination rather than bitterness. A preference to accentuate the positive.
Asked if she would like to return to the 800m, Niyonsaba is short and to the point. “I would never go back. I keep looking forward.”
Even when quizzed as to the two-lap performance (and there have been many) of which she is most proud, the 28-year-old replies: “I have forgotten about the 800m because I am now focusing on the longer distances.
“Since I was born I have not had an easy life and I love challenges. I face them with a lot of determination and perseverance. To transform myself from 800m to longer distances was not easy.
“I think life is full of challenges but I always say that the challenge is not a barrier but an opportunity to do better. I still do not know if I like the long distance more than the 800m, but I love challenges.
“I won’t think too much about it because it is what it is. At first it was not easy and I got a lot of injuries but I kept believing in myself.”
She adds: “I don’t know [if I will be better at 5000m or 10,000m] but I just love running long distances. Every moment I’m racing, or training, I just love running and I’m happy doing what I do. I am going to keep training hard, trying to perform well. The good thing about it is that I have a lot to improve – I’m still learning and am sure that I can go a lot faster in the future.”
Having spent much of her career based in Oregon, Niyonsaba has now relocated to train in Kenya “because Kenyans are often champions in the longer distance”. There is excitement about returning to the west coast of America for next year’s World Championships.
“Eugene will feel like home,” she says. “To be back in Eugene for the World Championship would be fantastic for me and I hope I will be there.”
World Athletics president Seb Coe insists the DSD rules are “here to stay”. But will they have changed by the time Oregon comes around? What’s for certain is that this is an issue which is not going away any time soon.
» This article is part of a feature that appeared in the October issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here and which includes Eilish McColgan’s views on Niyonsaba – who she knows well – and the DSD debate