Sunday, July 19, 2015

REAL Courage in Sport

I turned 10 the summer of 1976, the summer Bruce Jenner won the Gold Medal in Decathlon in Montreal.  I remember his body splayed in a variety of decathlon events across my morning Wheaties box.  Didn't we all want the Bruce Jenner Wheaties box in 1976?  I do not care much for Wheaties, never have, but as a child, staring at Bruce Jenner heaving the javelin across the cereal box, I knew I wanted to be in sports.  The Decathlon is the pinnacle of sport discipline in the arena of Track and Field Athletics.  

Bruce Jenner returned to my personal radar decades later as the father and stepfather of the narcissistic, selfie-taking, why are these people famous?, Kardashians.  Where had my sports hero gone?

And then he became she, Bruce became Caitlyn....

Earlier this week, Caitlyn/Bruce accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.   According to Wikipedia, "The Arthur Ashe Courage Award ... is an award that is part of the ESPY Awards. Although it is a sport-oriented award, it is not limited to sports-related people or actions, as it is presented annually to individuals whose contributions "transcend sports". Often these transcendent figures are also athletes who have been at the top of their sport, such as Muhammad Ali, Dean Smith, and Cathy Freeman."

Bruce Jenner did something in 1976 which transcended sport.  It was our Bicentennial in the US.  There was an increased level of patriotism and he rallied Americans around those Olympic Games, akin to the 1980 US Hockey team.  

That was courage.

Burundi is a tiny, land locked country on the brink of imploding.  It is home to a President, who like many African Presidents, has decided to change the constitution to run for another term, even though one lone Judge had the courage to stand up and vote against it.  Since April of this year, violence has been an ongoing fixture in the capitol city of Bujumbura.  In two days there will be a poll in the country.  All the opposition leaders have pulled out, violence is escalating and Burundians are fleeing (167,000 refugees into Rwanda and Tanzania since April).  The average Burudian makes $267USD per year.  Only 2% of the population has electricity, 56.8% of children are malnourished and the UN has declared Burundi the "hungriest" nation on earth in 2013.  

The UN has announced it is time to bring in the Security Council to avert mass atrocities.  The refugee situation has become tenuous in Tanzania with lack of proper food, shelter and sanitation.

Burundi is also the home to a cyclist, Leonidas Ahishakiye.  Leonidas is 19 years old and in February raced to a 4th place finish at the African Continental Championships Mens Junior Road Race.  He finished 4th in a sprint, with the 3rd place finisher, nudging out the podium win.  He finished 39 seconds back.  His bicycle was old, his coaching was little, but yet he made history as the highest finishing Burundian at a Continental Championship.  On the Procycling Stats results page they have a Rwandan flag next to his name in error.  Rwanda and Burundi are very different countries.

His performance earned him an invitation to the UCI World Cycling Center in Switzerland, the same one Rwandans, Valens and Jeanne d'Arc are currently attending.  Last week he found out his visa for Switzerland was denied as Burundi is now a "refugee" country and they will not bring him to Switzerland as he could apply for asylum.  

We at Team Rwanda have been following the situation closely.  Our hope was Leonidas would go to Switzerland.  Now, he is coming to us.  We must get him out of Burundi as soon as possible as the situation, especially in the capitol city, is day to day.  The invitation letter went out on Wednesday and we hope Leonidas and his trainer, Faustin, can make it to Rwanda this week. Interestingly, Leondias was also the name of the great warrior king of Sparta (540-480BC).  

Leonidas just wants to ride and race and faces leaving his country of the verge of disintegrating.  He probably hasn't been able to train properly and food and clean water is simply a luxury.  At our center he'll be safe, trained, cared for and given an opportunity to show the world the talent of Burundian cyclists.

THAT is real Courage in Sport.

In a recent interview with a new magazine, Ride Like a Girl, Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc), our Rwandan female cyclist currently training at the UCI in Switzerland, stated, 

"The biggest problem for girls/women to be involved in cycling in Rwanda is the mindset. Most people especially girls themselves don't see cycling or sport in general as something for them. Parents and communities in general play the biggest part in discouraging girls to see cycling as an activity for them. This has to change. I was lucky because my parents and community (Eastern province) showed different attitudes to what I have experienced in other parts of the country. For example most people in the Northern province don't see cycling as a sport for women - when they see us (girls) riding with the boys they find it funny and not normal! As much as we need to encourage more young girls to take part in cycling we also need to educate general public about the importance of girls having equal opportunity in sport. If a boy can ride a bike so can a girl!"

Jeanne d'Arc left everything she knew, personally, culturally, at the age or 19, to hopefully be the woman to inspire a country to start riding, to give women the same support she was given.  She didn't know but a smattering of English and had not a dime to her name, but she's racing and thriving and breaking down barriers for not only Rwandan women, but women throughout the continent of Africa.

THAT is real Courage in Sport.

Daniel Teklehaimanot, who, in his first Tour de France, as the first black African to race in the 100+ year history, was in the Polka Dot Jersey (best mountain classification) for several days and united Eritreans around the world and gave all of us in cycling in Africa hope...THAT is real Courage in Sport.

Hadnet Kidane, who after losing her mother the week before racing the Continental Championships, rode to an Olympic slot at the 2016 Rio Olympics Road Race.  Hadnet, with the generosity of a woman in Oklahoma, now has her first road bike to train on to race towards her dream....THAT is real Courage in Sport.

Our world has become so politically correct, so afraid of offending, that in so doing, we have truly overlooked what or who is actually courageous.  It is time to bring the focus back to real courage and not be afraid to stand up for those who truly exemplify the courageous spirit.

Leonidas, Jeanne d'Arc, Daniel and's to your courageous spirit in the sport of cycling!


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