The Disgraceful Disqualification of Francine Niyonsaba

By Robert Johnson
August 1, 2021

TOKYO — Whether you are a die-hard track fan or just a casual sports fan, please take a look at the following 40-second clip and tell me if you see an infraction that would warrant disqualifying a runner from a 5,000-meter race (3.1 miles)?

The answer is of course no, unless you are looking for a reason to get rid of someone.

I’ve watched it probably 20 times and don’t see Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba stepping on or inside the curb that is on the inside of the track which technically would be a violation of Technical Rule 17.3.2, which is supposed to result in disqualification unless an athlete was forced inside by another competitor.

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World Athletics insists they have video evidence that it did happen. The only problem is they can’t be bothered to share it with journalists or even Niyonsaba herself. They don’t even have protocols in place to notify athletes of a DQ. Once again, it was up to the members of the press to tell a prominent athlete they had been DQ’d. That is unacceptable.

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Even if the video does exist, Niyonsaba’s DQ is still a disgrace for three reasons.

  1. Technical Rule 17.3.2 is a joke. As we’ve been saying for years, stumbling in the middle of a 3.1-mile race should not result in a DQ. The rule needs to be changed. This argument is pretty much self-explanatory. Referees in all major sports normally have the discretion to call a foul or not. No one in their right mind would call what Niyonsaba allegedly did a foul that needs to be called.
  2. Where is the consistency and transparency in the enforcement of this rule? British star Mo Farah took a step over the rail on the final lap of the men’s 10,000 at the London World Championships in 2017. He was at home in front of tens of thousands of fans and wasn’t DQ’d. It makes you wonder why.I’m sure World Athletics would say the difference is because Farah was clipped from behind, but slow-motion replays don’t show any clear evidence of that. It actually appears that Farah clipped himself. Couldn’t it be argued that similarly Niyonsaba was clipped from behind or on the side in this instance? It’s not clear one way or the other. And here it’s not even clear that Niyonsaba steps on or over the rail. Regardless of what the answer is, Niyonsaba, the fans, and the media deserve to understand why these decisions are being made. World Athletics refuses to elaborate.Niyonsaba and I have both asked to see video evidence of the infraction and World Athletics has refused to provide any. World Athletics even came up with the following laughable excuse. They told me they aren’t the rights holder to the video “so we don’t have access to video. Or the right to share it.” That’s ridiculous. It’s called fair use. The governing body certainly has the right to show athletes or coaches or members of the media why a rule infraction was called.Niyonsaba told me that her coach was shown some video “but he told me stepping on a line is not even visible!!!” We imagine he was shown the same video I started this piece with.Niyonsaba then asked to see proof herself and they refused to show it to her.
  3. Niyonsaba deserves better — much better — given what she’s been through. Like the much better known Caster Semenya, Niyonsaba identifies as a woman but biologically she is what most rational people would describe as intersex if you are being intellectually honest about things. Her testosterone levels are well above the female range and she has a difference of sexual development (DSD) that, under World Athletics rules, means she is ineligible to compete in the women’s category in any event from 400 meters to the mile without artificially lowering her testosterone.Why those distances? Because those were the only ones where the scientists had any data to back up a ban that a court would accept.
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I’ve been as supportive of the DSD rules that bar intersex athletes from the 400-mile as any journalist out there. I do think it’s an unfair advantage for athletes in the women’s category to have internal testes. End of story.

That being said, for modern society to function properly, we have to follow rules. Niyonsaba followed the new rules and moved up in distance from the 800 — where she was the Olympic silver medallist in 2016 — and managed to qualify for Tokyo in both the 5,000 and 10,000. She deserves a lot of credit for sticking with it. If you are fan of humanity, you’ve got to be inspired by her perseverance.

When we talked to her on Friday before she knew she was DQ’d, she explained why she stuck with it.

“I said I wanted to be an inspiration. To be here, it means a lot. I want to inspire younger girls like me, especially in Africa and across the world,” said Niyonsaba.

Then her nightmare began as she learned she was DQ’d for an inconsequential and possibly phantom foul.

Was the foul noted by an official at the time? In the video I’ve watched, I don’t see a yellow flag go up.

Since World Athletics won’t fully explain how it went down to Niyonsaba or the press, it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to wonder if they were just looking for an excuse to get rid of her.

Disgraceful is all I can say.

Niyonsaba and the fans deserve better. Much better.

Talk about the Niyonsaba DQ on our world-famous fan forum/messageboard.

MB: I’m outraged that Francine Niyonsaba was DQd from Worlds. And you should be to.

Related: 2019: What No One Is Telling You About Caster Semenya: She Has XY Chromosomes

*AP: ‘So alone’: Niyonsaba criticizes own team after Olympics DQ


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