Burundi’s first female Olympic boxer Ornella Havyarimana: It is my dream to grow boxing in the hearts of young African girls”

If you are a fighter, you can overcome life’s challenges, Ornella Havyarimana says with simplicity.

Sitting down for an interview with Olympics.com in her native Burundi as part of the new original series ‘Game plans‘, available to stream now on Olympics.com for free, it’s easy to see why 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 Tokyo 2020 The 2021 Games saw the boxer become 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 thrown at her has had some positive consequences for Havyarimana, and she is proud of the change in social norms that has followed her success:

People know me now in Burundi and I am helping to change attitudes. I have seen the stigmas in my culture slowly begin to change, she says.

But there was a time when those same preconceptions and prejudices threatened to stop her from boxing altogether; where she had to embrace uncertainty just to keep her dream alive.

Ornella: beating down social prejudices in pursuit of her Olympic dream | Game plans

Discover boxing and fighting boys

It has been a tough journey, Havyarimana begins.

Growing up in a poor area of ​​Gitega, Burundi’s capital, the life Havyarimana knew as a teenager was basic.

Then, one day, she saw boxing on a television screen in a shop window as she ran by. She stopped to look, and what she saw captured her imagination:

It was my first time watching boxing. I didn’t know what I was looking at but I knew I needed to. I was so interested in what I saw that 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 that boxing was only for boys, but they agreed to let me play.

Absorbed in her new sport, Havyarimana threw herself into training and quickly felt her progress. As the only girl, she had to fight with the other boys despite the physical deviations: Sometimes I was beaten badly, she remembers.

Although the boys were adamant, the young Burundian did not care. It made her love boxing even more. A boxing coach then took Havyarimana under his wing until she trained almost every day and thrived as a fighter:

That’s when I started experiencing enormous challenges.

Ornella Havyarimana teaches children from her village to box

Ornella Havyarimana: Fighting to play the sport she loved

It was no coincidence that Havyarimana had no girls to spar against.

She says that what she did in society was generally considered unacceptable. Burundi had never known a female boxer until she had picked up a pair of gloves.

Among those who 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 is said to be a man’s sport. When my dad found out I boxed, he was angry. He said that a girl should only cook and do the household chores. He said I would be hurt and probably never get married.

He didn’t see my passion for the sport. He locked me in the house so I couldn’t train but I loved boxing so much I couldn’t accept this. I continued to box secretly.

When Havyarimana’s father caught her for the second time, he forced her into an ultimatum: her family or her sport. Against their will, she chose to continue boxing and was thrown out of 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 discovered that the local community is turning against her as well.

My father was so angry that he threw me out. He didn’t want to talk to me. After that, many people in my community avoided 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 continue boxing. It was a difficult start to my career.

I went alone; boxing was my only friend.

Field of play | Watch the trailer

Tokyo 2020: Havyarimana makes her Olympic debut

Although Havyarimana was facing the fight of her life outside the ring, she was focused on her boxing.

The same coach who worked with Havyarimana in her early days encouraged her to enter competitions, and soon the talented Burundian began traveling the world to put her grit to the test.

“I remember the first time I got hit really hard in India,” she says, acting on the way the fist connected with her face and the sound it made as it collided with her body. A boxer from Thailand almost knocked me out.

Although humbled at times by his foreign challengers, Havyariamana learned much more than ring craft along the way: “It’s great 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 go in with force. You must study your opponents and be prepared for battle. Above all, you must not be afraid. We have to face our fear, that’s what makes us stronger – Ornella Havyarimana

Havyariamana’s globetrotting, backed by competition results, eventually earned her a ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to be held in 2021. It was a dream come true, but it was when the flyweight fighter arrived in the Japanese capital that she realized how significant her performance was:

All athletes have to travel far to get to the Olympics, but some have to travel further than others. African athletes do not always have the same opportunities.

It was a fantastic 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.

Tokyo 2020 Olympian Ornella Havyarimana shares her love of boxing with those back in Burundi
Tokyo 2020 Olympian Ornella Havyarimana shares her love of boxing with those back in Burundi

Ornella Havyarimana: Building a better tomorrow through boxing

Although it feels like the dust has barely settled over Tokyo, Havyarimana is already looking forward to the next Olympic Games at Paris 2024.

This time she will have the full support of her family who have since changed their mind about boxing since she made her Olympic debut.

It’s great to fight in Burundi and have men come and support. Even my father now supports me and accepts me. He understands that boxing is my passion and a path to success.

Havyarimana also knows that her sporting history has become bigger than just her and her pursuit of boxing. Women and girls across Africa have been touched by her dedication and sacrifices to do what she loves.

As well as having a knack for their preparations for the Games, Havyarimana wants to continue to give them something more to aspire to:

Now I travel through Burundi introducing boxing to young girls. I have seen for myself that a love of sport can change attitudes and culture.

It is my dream to cultivate boxing in the hearts of young African girls and women.

See more of her story in the new original series ‘Game plans‘, available to stream now on Olympics.com for free,

Game plans

Game plans

Discover the inspiring stories behind a new generation of African athletes, each with their tragedies and triumphs, struggles and strengths, hopes and dreams to excel in their sport and uncover the inner truth of what makes an Olympic hero.

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