10 May 2013

Team Rwanda: from genocide to the Olympics

Special Correspondent and Presenter

Twenty years after the genocide, Adrien Niyonshuti became the first Rwandan cyclist to compete in the Olympics. He tells Channel 4 News about his journey and his part in a new film about the team.

Rwanda cyclist Adrien Niyonshuti was the first cyclist to compete in the Olympics for Rwanda (R)

Ask most athletes what they were doing as children and you might hear stories of early ambition. Or how they suddenly discovered a natural talent.

Perhaps even tales of intense training schedules.

Adrien Niyonshuti could never be described as being like most athletes. In 1994, when he was a child, Adrian was escaping genocide.

It was the systematic killing of 800,000 Rwandans by their own fellow countrymen that formed the backdrop to his childhood. At the age of just seven, Adrien managed to escape. But six of his brothers didn’t make it.

Almost 20 years on, Adrien and I are sitting on a park bench in a supposedly summery London. Except we’re faced with a blustering wind and a shivery Adrien is determined to keep his orange woolly hat firmly on his head. We finally persuade him to lose the hat for filming.

It is harder to persuade him to talk about the past. After all so much has happened since.

Last year, Niyonshuti made history carrying the flag for his country at the Olympics. He was the first Rwandan to qualify for mountain biking and his whole journey to get there has been documented on camera by a film team.

Rising From Ashes tells the story of Adrien and Team Rwanda, their struggle to make it in the world of cycling and their hopes that one day Rwanda may be known to the world for something other than the scenes of horror from 1994.

Personal tragedy

The film tells the personal stories of the cyclists – of how they lost family members and of their difficulties in making it as professional athletes.

It also tells another difficult story. Team Rwanda’s head coach is former US cyclist Jock Boyer – the first American to ride in the Tour de France. He is also a convicted child abuser. In 2002 he pleaded guilty to seven counts of lewd and lascivious acts upon a child and spent a year in a US prison. The film shows Boyer’s attempt at redemption, as he spends years training the Rwandan cyclists.

Adrien is back in London to promote the film. At the end of last night’s premiere, the audience gave him a standing ovation. Adrien stood up calmly and waved – the experience of London 2012 has made him used to fame as an athlete. He says the “amazing” experience of the Olympics has made the UK his favourite country.

But when I ask him about his new found fame, not just as an athlete but now as a film star, he seems to take it in his stride.

“It’s really good,” he says, almost underwhelmed. But then his eyes light up and he adds: “I have, like, 3,000 friends on Facebook.