Burundi’s first female Olympic boxer Ornella Havyarimana:
“It is my dream to grow boxing in the hearts of young African girls”.
Rejected for daring to pursue her passion, Burundi’s Havyarimana’s greatest fight started well before she ever stepped into the ring. Having blazed a trail to Tokyo 2020 she shares her story as part of a new original series on Olympics.com ‘Playing Fields’, which you can watch now for free.
“If you are a fighter, you can overcome the challenges of life,”Ornella Havyarimana says with simplicity.
Sitting for an interview with Olympics.com in her native Burundi as part of the new original series ‘Playing Fields‘, available to stream now on Olympics.com for free, it’s easy to see why the boxer turns on these words.
It’s a mantra that has pulled the 25-year-old through even the toughest of times.
Today, Havyarimana is hailed as a history-maker. At the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021, the boxer became the first athlete ever to represent the small East African nation in the discipline at an Olympics. She carried her national flag at the Opening Ceremony to highlight her achievement.
The spotlight that has been thrust onto her has had some positive consequences for Havyarimana, and she is proud of the shift in social norms that have followed her success:
“People know me now in Burundi and I’m helping change attitudes. I have seen the stigmas in my culture slowly start to change,”She says.
But there was a time when those same preconceptions and prejudices threatened to stop her from boxing altogether; where she was forced to embrace uncertainty just to keep her dream alive.
Discovering boxing and battling boys
“It has been a tough journey,”Havyarimana begins.
Growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood in Gitega, the capital of Burundi, the life Havyarimana knew as a teen was basic.
Then, one day, she saw boxing on a television screen in a shop window as she ran past. She stopped to watch, and what she saw captured her imagination:
“It was my first time seeing boxing. I didn’t know what I was watching but I knew that I needed to do it. I was so interested in what I was seeing I wondered if Burundi had boxing.”
Not long after, Havyarimana came across a group of boys boxing in the street, and she asked if they would show her how to fight:
“They teased me and told me boxing was only for boys, but they agreed to let me play.”
Engrossed in her new sport, Havyarimana threw herself into training and quickly felt her progression. As the only girl, she had to fight with the other boys even despite the physical discrepancies: “Sometimes I would get beaten hard,” she recalls.
Though the boys were unyielding, the young Burundian didn’t care. It made her love boxing even more. A boxing coach then took Havyarimana under his wing until she was practising nearly every day, thriving as a fighter:
“It was then that I began to experience huge challenges.”
Fighting to pursue the sport she loved
It was not an accident that Havyarimana had no girls to spar against.
She tells us that societally, what she was doing was widely held to be unacceptable. Burundi had never known a female boxer until she had picked up a pair of gloves.
Among those that disapproved of Havyarimana’s actions was her father, who, when he discovered what she was doing, did everything he could to try and stop her.
“In Burundi, women are not supposed to box; it’s said to be a man’s sport. When my father found out I was boxing, he was angry. He said a girl is only to cook and tend to household duties. He said I would get injured and probably never get married.
“He didn’t see my passion for the sport. He would lock me in the house so I couldn’t practice but I loved boxing so much that I couldn’t accept this. I continued to box in secret.”
When Havyarimana’s father caught her for a second time he forced her into an ultimatum: her family or her sport. Against their wishes, she chose to continue with boxing and she was ejected from her home. Her father also refused to pay her school fees, forcing her to drop out of school and live with her grandmother.
Then she found her local community turning on her too.
“My father was so angry he threw me out. He wouldn’t speak to me. After that, many people in my community shunned me. They called me names. My family acted like they didn’t love me anymore. I had to leave home and live with my grandmother. It was the only way I could keep boxing. It was a difficult start to my career.
“I walked alone; boxing was my only friend.”Havyarimana begins.
Tokyo 2020: Havyarimana makes her Olympic debut
Though facing the fight of life outside of the ring, Havyarimana stayed focused on her boxing.
The same coach that worked with Havyarimana in her early days encouraged her to enter competitions, and soon the gifted Burundian began travelling the world putting her grit to the test.
“I remember the first time I was punched really hard in India,”
“A boxer from Thailand almost knocked me out.”She says, acting out the way the fist connected with her face and the sound it made as it collided with her body.
Though, at times humbled by her overseas challengers, Havyariamana learned far more than ring craft along her way:
“It’s amazing to see cultures so different from my own. Boxing has expanded my world.”
“In the ring, you have to be quick on your feet. You have to enter with force. You have to study your opponents and be prepared for battle. Most of all, you must not be afraid. We must face our fear, it’s what makes us stronger”– Ornella Havyarimana.
Havyariamana’s globetrotting, backed up by competition results, eventually earned her a ticket to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, held in 2021. It was a dream come true, but it was when the flyweight fighter arrived in the Japanese capital that it dawned on her how significant her achievement was:
“All athletes have to travel far to get to the Olympics, but some have to travel farther than others. African athletes don’t always have the same opportunities.
“It was an amazing dream come true to compete in the Olympics. the walk in the stadium, representing my flag, I was so proud. No Burundian woman had ever had this boxing experience before.”