Burundi’s golden boy
Burundi’s only ever Olympic medallist, Vénuste Niyongabo won the 5,000m at the 1996 Games, obliterating the field, despite the fact that it wasn’t really his event.
Olympic champion in Atlanta“The Olympic Games are a dream, a dream for every runner. The champions of five continents all competing against each other, and all of them want the gold. That’s why for a day I felt like the best in the world; it was a great feeling.” Those were the words of Vénuste Niyongabo as he reflected on his victory in the 5,000m at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. It was a race the Burundian was never supposed to win. Caught in the middle of the pack for most of the final, he went out in front with two laps to go. At the bell, he kicked on again to launch a clear break, crossing the finish line in 13:07.96, ahead of Kenya’s Paul Bitok, and Khalid Boulami of Morocco (13.08:37). He remains to this day Burundi’s only Olympic medal winner, and his achievement was all the more impressive as it was only his third time running the 5,000m in an international competition.
Middle distance specialistBorn in the village of Vugizo, near the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the south of Burundi, Niyongabo rose to international prominence as an 800m and 1,500m runner. During the 1992 World Junior Championships in Seoul (KOR), he finished fourth in the 800m and then took silver over the longer distance. The following year, he stepped up to compete at the World Championships in Stuttgart (GER), where he reached the semi-finals of the 1,500m. He went on to establish himself as one of the finest exponents over this distance racking up a series of impressive victories, notably in the prestigious IAAF meet in Oslo (NOR) in 1995, where he set a new world best of 3.30.78. Later that year, in Gothenburg (SWE), he took bronze at the World Championships behind the Algerian Nourredine Morceli and Morocco’s Hicham el Guerrouj.
A surprising choice in AtlantaBy the time of the Olympic Games in Atlanta the following year, Niyongabo was among the favourites for the 1,500m. However, he felt his chances of victory were slim, given the high calibre of the competition in a field that included Morceli and El Guerrouj, as well as the defending Olympic champion Fermin Cacho of Spain, and Kenyan trio Stephen Kipkorir, Lucas Rotich and Moses Tanui. He therefore decided not to enter the 1,500m, opting instead for the 5,000m, where he felt his prospects were stronger. It was a calculated gamble, and one that paid off beautifully! Cheered on by 80,000 spectators in Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium as he completed a phenomenal final lap, Niyongabo conjured up a victory that went down as one of the true shocks of the Games and provided Burundi with its finest Olympic hour.