Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Genocide survivor leads the way for Rwanda's Olympic athletes

By Paul Gittings, CNN
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1021 GMT (1821 HKT)
Adrien Niyonshuti survived the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, which took many of his family members. Adrien Niyonshuti survived the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, which took many of his family members.
Focused on the future
Inspiring a nation
Swiss preparation
Remembering the Genocide
Mixing it with the pros
Swiss coaching guru
  • Adrien Niyonshuti carried Rwandan flag at opening ceremony of 2012 Olympics
  • Six of his brothers were killed in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994
  • The 25-year-old will compete in the men's mountain bike final on Sunday
  • He has received coaching from mountain bike great Thomas Frischknect

(CNN) -- Adrien Niyonshuti is unlikely to win an Olympic medal, and he will do well to even finish his event, but his story is surely one of the most inspirational in the history of the Games.

In April 1994, when he was just seven, Niyonshuti's family became victims of the brutal genocide in Rwanda which left nearly 800,000 people slaughtered.

He fled the Hutu killers who came to his village, but six of his brothers were murdered and up to 60 of his wider family perished.

He miraculously escaped with his mother and father, living off scraps in the countryside, almost starving to death before aid came in the form of the rebel Tutsi army from neighboring Uganda.

"The memory of the genocide is a really hard time for me and for a lot of people in Rwanda," he told CNN's Human to Hero series.

Human to Hero: Adrien Niyonshuti
Life in Rwanda on two wheels
Sudan child soldier turned U.S. Olympian
Oscar Pistorius' fighting spirit

"Cycling gives me the opportunity to keep my past time away and really focus on what I want to do."

Read more: Rwanda's wooden bike riders

Not only did he survive one of the worst atrocities in modern history, but Niyonshuti has overcome the odds to carry his country's flag at London 2012.

He will have to wait until the final day of the Games before he can actually compete, but the fact that the 25-year-old from the small east African country has qualified for the men's mountain bike final is an achievement in itself.

A way forward

Black African competitors are few and far between in this highly technical discipline, which is dominated by riders from the traditional powerhouses of cycling in Europe.

Lack of specialist equipment and top-class competition are almost insurmountable barriers to even the most physically gifted athlete such as Niyonshuti, but by finishing fourth in last year's African Mountain Bike Championships he booked his place on the starting line at Hadleigh Farm.

As he grew up, initially encouraged by his uncle Emmanuel, who lent him an old steel bike, Niyonshuti used cycling as an escape from the realities of his past.

But youthful enthusiasm can only take you so far in any sport, particularly from a war-ravaged country with little competitive structure.

Niyonshuti's life changed when he was noticed by a trio of top international riders who came to Rwanda to help with a local race: Jonathan "Jock" Boyer, the the first U.S. cyclist to compete in the Tour de France in 1981; fellow international competitor Tom Ritchey; and Swiss mountain bike legend Thomas Frischknecht.

They all spotted Niyonshuti's raw talent and set about giving him the chance to achieve his potential.

See also: From war child to U.S. Olympic star

Team Rwanda

Boyer returned, having secured some funding in the United States and backing from cycling's world governing body, the UCI.

Development for Nigerian canoeists
Secrets to creating world's best runners
Olympic champion turns teacher

His goal was to set up Team Rwanda and, based in Ruhengeri, in the north east of the country, he tested young prospects for their physical capabilities.

As Boyer remembers, Niyonshuti stood out from the rest.

"He tested higher than than anyone, but his whole demeanor was different, really dedicated to what he wanted to do," Boyer told CNN.

The veteran retired pro and young hopeful even raced together in the 2007 Cape Epic -- the Tour de France of mountain bike racing -- and finished a creditable 33rd overall and top Rwandan pair.

Yet Niyonshuti and his teammates were concerned that Boyer and other helpers would eventually leave them.

" 'How long is this going to last?' they asked me. In a country like Rwanda they were well used to aid projects which lasted for about six months and then departed."

But Boyer stayed, helping Niyonshuti to achieve his potential in a professional team.

Professional contract

He contacted Douglas Ryder, the boss of South Africa's MTN-Qhubeka and after a trial Niyonshuti was signed in 2008.

What followed has been the stuff of dreams, and in 2009 Niyonshuti became the first black African to compete in a professional peloton when the team raced in the Tour of Ireland.

From Tunisia uprising to London Olympics
 Kourage Athletics creates running apparel that's 'designed, manufactured and managed in Kenya by Kenyans.' Kourage Athletics creates running apparel that's 'designed, manufactured and managed in Kenya by Kenyans.'
Kenya running brand
Kenya\'s first running brand Kenya's first running brand

Not only that, he was introduced to seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, who was also in the stage race that year as he returned from his first retirement.

Niyonshuti quickly realized that although Armstrong was a legend, the American was still flesh and blood like everyone else.

"When I saw him on the news, I thought Armstrong was a big, big man!" he recalled. "But when I saw him face to face, he was quite small!"

Niyonshuti has excelled in road racing and individual time trialing against the clock, but cross-country mountain biking offered him the best chance of Olympic qualification.

After gaining his spot, he has been honing his skills with Frischknecht in Switzerland, staying at the former world champion's home.

"His technical skills were poor but he was very strong," said Frischknecht.

At the Olympics, seeded riders start in the front rank, giving them a massive advantage on the narrow and highly technical course.

Olympic goal

For riders like Niyonshuti, who will be starting towards the back, the aim of the game is to avoid being lapped and therefore eliminated, which is no easy task.

Runner Lopez Lomong was the flag bearer of the U.S. Olympic team at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Runner Lopez Lomong was the flag bearer of the U.S. Olympic team at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Leading U.S. Olympians in Beijing
U.S. athlete Lopez Lomong seeks London Olympic glory U.S. athlete Lopez Lomong seeks London Olympic glory
A photo exhibition celebrating women athletes in the Arab world has opened in London.<br/><br/>The women featured include sprinter Feta Ahamada, from Comoros, who is competing at the Olympics. A photo exhibition celebrating women athletes in the Arab world has opened in London.

The women featured include sprinter Feta Ahamada, from Comoros, who is competing at the Olympics.
Feta Ahamada
In Pictures: Arab female athletes In Pictures: Arab female athletes

"We have one big goal: to actually finish the race," Frischknecht confided.

"He can only afford to be about 10 minutes behind the leader, but I have some hope he can actually do it. He has developed his skills a lot."

So no Olympic glory, just survival, but Niyonshuti's life has been all about just that and his efforts will hopefully inspire a generation of cyclists from his country.

Boyer has no doubt of that.

"Each country always has a hero and Adrien for Rwanda is the ignition point, the spark that is going to get kids into cycling," he said.

Longer term, Boyer believes Niyonshuti can prosper in the professional peloton and one day ride the Tour de France with MTN, which wants to acquire a higher UCI pro continental team status next year.

"They have a two-year plan to achieve it," Boyer said.

Flag bearer

MTN has signed 20-year-old Ethiopian Tsgabu Grmay, as well as two Eritrean riders, Meron Russom and Jani Tewelde, so it is not inconceivable there could be sizable African representation in the greatest cycling race in the world.

Given Niyonshuti's tragic past, it would complete a remarkable journey for him -- and if sheer determination was the only factor, he will surely take his place.

"I will never give up, I will try my best," is Niyonshuti's racing philosophy.

He will be putting it to the test against the best mountain bikers in the world as the London Olympics come to a climax on Sunday.

Having already carried Rwanda's flag at the opening ceremony, Niyonshuti knows that the hopes and dreams of his nation rest on his slim shoulders -- and he will surely not let them down.

Part of complete coverage on
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
The moment that Team GB's Mo Farah won the 10,000 meters was a wonderful collision of electricity.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
His blistering pace and larger-than-life antics made him the king of the track in London, and bolstered his claims to be a "living legend."
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 0944 GMT (1744 HKT)
Disappointment for Nigeria's Muizat Ajoke Odumosu, who came last in the 400m hurdles final, London 2012 Olympics.
The Olympics are generally won and lost long before the opening ceremony cauldron is touched by fire.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 0738 GMT (1538 HKT)
Fans of the home side, Team GB, wave Union Jack flags during the Olympic Games
CNN's Richard Quest believes the London Games will be regarded as having brought the Olympics concept home.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Strategist Alastair Campbell says he never imagined London 2012 would be quite the triumph it turned out to be.
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Award-winning director Danny Boyle celebrates the best of British music in London 2012's Olympic Closing Ceremony.
January 31, 2013 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
From Usain Bolt's record-setting achievements to an unexpected Ugandan gold, London 2012 has provided a wide array of highlights.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 0305 GMT (1105 HKT)
CNN's Amanda Davies recaps the London 2012 Olympics from the opening ceremony on July 27 to the finale on day 16.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 1702 GMT (0102 HKT)
Mo Farah and Usain Bolt celebrate their success at the London 2012 Olympic Games by copying each other's
It's been just over two weeks since the Queen parachuted into London's Olympic Stadium, her apricot dress flapping in the breeze.
August 15, 2012 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
When the world's top marathon runners bid to win Olympic gold, they would do well to draw inspiration from one of the greatest athletes in the history of track and field.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Team GB supporters with their faces painted in Union Jack designs at the Olympic Stadium in London.
Alastair Campbell always thought London 2012 would be a success, but never imagined it would be quite the triumph it has turned out to be.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1021 GMT (1821 HKT)
Adrien Niyonshuti is unlikely to win an Olympic medal, and he will do well to even finish his event, but his story is surely one of the most inspirational.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
The colors of the Olympic Rings at the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, August 2012.
Olympic fever has cheered up London and made it a more welcoming place, but will optimism be one of the legacies of the Games?
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Wojdan Shaherkani's Olympic debut was short, but sweet -- the Saudi judoka said competing at the Games was
London 2012 is the first Olympics to feature women in every national team, with Jacques Rogge hailing a "major boost for gender equality."
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
An impoverished South Korean gymnast has not only struck Olympic gold, but also reaped a $444,000 donation in a veritable rags to riches tale.
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
Britain's hero Jessica Ennis is set to cash in after winning heptathlon gold, but the poster girl of the 2012 Olympics says fame is not her motivation.
August 8, 2012 -- Updated 0746 GMT (1546 HKT)
China is rallying around fallen hurdler Liu Xiang after he failed to make it past the first-round heat for a second consecutive Olympics.
August 3, 2012 -- Updated 1930 GMT (0330 HKT)
The first woman to win Olympic gold almost died in a plane crash, but remarkably returned to run again for the U.S. in 1936.
August 7, 2012 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Don Paige could not bear to watch the race he knew he could win. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were the death of a dream for many athletes.
August 4, 2012 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
Ricardo Blas Jr
While Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt grab the headlines, little-known athletes from around the world keep alive the original spirit of the Olympics.
Athletes spend years eating the right foods ... and then must resist the free fast food in the Olympic village. How do they do it?