I really like this piece by Matt Wisner. Matt wrote for us at the Olympic Trials, as part of Lori Shontz’ group of sport journalist SOJC, and we were fortunate to have this group writing for us at the Olympic Trials, and some again for the Olympics.
Matt Wisner has an affection for the sport, and the ability to put athletes, such as Francine Niyonsaba, into a perspective that allows, you the reader, to feel the story.
Nicely done, Matt.
And Francine totally kicked butt in that 2 mile, didn’t she?
In her first trip back to Eugene, Francine Niyonsaba Wins the Prefontaine Classic 2 mile in the Second Fastest Time Ever: 9:00.75
By Matt Wisner
Francine Niyonsaba won the women’s 2 miles in 9:00.75 on Friday night at the Prefontaine Classic.
The field quickly strung out, and four women broke away: the Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey (World Record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000), the Kenyan Hellen Obiri (2017 World Champion in the 5,000), the German Konstanze Klosterhalfen (European indoor record holder in the 5,000), and Niyonsaba.
The four women came through the mile together in 4:33, giving themselves a chance to crack the World Record.
From there, Niyonsaba and Gidey broke away, and with 600 meters remaining, Niyonsaba made a dominant surge forward, pulling away and never looking back, ultimately winning by six seconds.
Gidey finished second in 9:06.74, the third-fastest time in world history.
Niyonsaba, though, is now the second-fastest performer all-time in the event. Meseret Defar of Ethiopia is the World Record holder in the event and the only woman to ever break 9 minutes. She ran 8:58.58 in Brussels in 2007.
Niyonsaba’s trip to the Pre Classic was a homecoming of sorts; she lived in Eugene for three years and competed for the Oregon Track Club. She joined Mark Rowland’s team after winning the 800 meters at the World Indoor Championships in Portland in 2016.
“I was really glad to be here because I feel at home,” Niyonsaba said of her first trip back to Eugene.
Niyonsaba went on to win silver in the 800 at the Rio Olympics in 2016, silver at the World Championships in London in 2017, and then another gold medal at Worlds indoors in 2018. Niyonsaba was dominant over two laps.
But after Niyonsaba’s three years-long tear, in November 2018, World Athletics instituted a rule that required athletes competing in the women’s classification to have testosterone under a certain level to compete in events from 400 meters up to the mile.
Niyonsaba is intersex; her chromosomes are XY. Niyonsaba’s natural testosterone levels are higher than almost all of the women she competes against, which certainly warrants a competitive advantage in some events; there’s uncertainty, however, in how much of an advantage, if any, elevated testosterone brings in longer distance events, like the 2 miles and 5,000.
After the rule change, Niyonsaba had to decide whether she’d take testosterone suppressants or change her event. She decided to change her event. Competing for Burundi, she qualified for Tokyo in both the 5,000 and the 10,000.
“A challenge is not a barrier,” Niyonsaba said on Twitter after running 14:54 in the 5,000 to secure her qualification for Tokyo. “It’s an opportunity to do better.”
But Niyonsaba’s extraordinary performance at Pre might ultimately be evidence leveraged in the argument for increasing the distance of the restricted events for intersex athletes. There’s an ongoing conversation within World Athletics about whether the 3,000 and 2-mile distances should also be restricted.
At the Olympics though, Niyonsaba’s shortest event was the 5,000. In the semifinal, Niyonsaba was disqualified after one step inside the rail. Her disqualification is controversial because three consecutive steps inside the rail are conventionally required to yield a disqualification, and they disqualified Niyonsaba after a single misstep.
The 5,000-meter race takes more than 14 minutes, and a single step inside the rail certainly doesn’t result in an unfair competitive edge.
Niyonsaba told the media that she felt “so alone” after the frivolous disqualification.
Some people have suggested that the International Olympic Committee wanted to prevent Niyonsaba from winning.
Regardless, Niyonsaba is hot right now. After the World Athletics rule change, Niyonsaba only raced once in 2019, and then she didn’t race at all in 2020. She disappeared from the public eye, put her head down, and became world-class in events that are six and 12 times the length of her most comfortable race distance. That takes a lot of heart.
It doesn’t matter where Niyonsaba went. She’s back.