Archive for June, 2012

John Akii-Bua: Olympic Trials and Triumphs

June 10, 2012

August 31st, 1972;  22 year-old John Akii-Bua (50.35 seconds) wins in the fourth heat of the five Round One 400 meters-hurdles heats. Stavros Tziortzis (50.54s) who had earlier during the same year beaten a sickly Akii-Bua into second place, at a track meet in Europe, finishes second (50.54). Olympic medal hope William (Bill) Koskei of Kenya, who won Uganda the silver medal in the same event at the Commonwealth of Nations’ Games in Edinburgh in 1970, had disappointingly finished fourth (50.58) in the second heat of this Round One. Koskei is eliminated from moving on to the semi-finals. The top three finishers of each of the five heats, plus one hurdler with the next best time, move on to the Semi-Final Round of sixteen hurdlers.

September 1st, 1972; John Akii-Bua (49.25 seconds) wins in the first of the two Semi-Final heats. It is notable that in this heat, Akii-Bua is drawn in lane 2 to race against two other top medal hopes: David Peter Hemery of Great Britain who is the Olympic champion and world record holder; and Ralph Mann of the United States who has the world leading time in the intermediate hurdles and is ranked number one in the world at the event. Akii-Bua commendably beats Ralph Vernon Mann (49.53), and Dave Hemery (49.66). Here, Akii-Bua races with these arch-rivals for the first time ever. Akii-Bua’s confidence that he will win, is reinforced. The top four finishers of each of the Semi-Final heats are the finalists. He aims to smash the world record by about a second.

September 2nd, 1972; John Akii-Bua (47.82 seconds), despite being drawn into disadvantageously tight lane 1 wins in the final in a new Olympic and World record. He becomes the first man ever to officially run the race in under 48 seconds. In a photo-finishing fight, Ralph Mann (48.51) is second and Dave Hemery (48.52) wins the bronze. The semi-final had somewhat predicted what the outcome of the final would be!

After four decades Akii-Bua still holds the 47.82 Uganda record; and this is still one of the best times by an African hurdler. Akii-Bua remains Africa’s only Olympic gold medal winning hurdler; the only African with an Olympic gold in a track event that is less than 800m. It is also notable that Akii was singular in that he won in each of his 400mh hurdles heats in the Olympics in Munich, right up to the finals. And in each of them, he was placed in disadvantageously tight lane 1 or 2. A far-cry from this era, Akii-Bua was the lone black finalist in the 400mh line-up in Munich. He became a significant role model for the torrents of black 400mh hurdling champions and record holders that have followed.

July 1976 in Montreal; Uganda boycotts the Olympic Games, alongside nearly 30 mostly African countries. The boycott is over the International Olympic Committee (IOC) not banning New Zealand from the Olympics after the NZ national rugby team toured apartheid South Africa earlier in the year. Akii-Bua had trained hard, in the same year established a personal best and Uganda record in the 400m flat. He was looking forward to defending his Olympic title. Fast improving Edwin Moses of the United States had become the main international attraction among the intermediate hurdlers. Moses would win the gold and smash Akii-Bua’s world record. It is also notable that In the third week of June 1976, Akii-Bua’s thigh (left hamstring) muscle tore. This injury could have reduced his chances at competing or performing well at 1976 Olympics.

July 24th 1980 at the Grand Arena in the Central Lenin Stadium Area in Moscow, Akii-Bua now 30 years of age is placed in the first heat of three in Round One of the 400 meters-hurdles. The first four leaders in each heat, plus four with the next fastest time would move on to the semi final round of 16. Akii-Bua (50.87), long past his prime is fifth. After all three heats, the times are tallied, and Akii-Bua is able to move on to the semi-finals. Notably, over sixty countries including the United, most rallying around protesting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, did not compete in Moscow. Competition was significantly reduced.

July 25th, 1980; Akii-Bua (51.10), running in the second of the two Semi-Final heats is beaten into seventh place and eliminated from moving on to the final. The eight hurdlers with the fastest times are the finalists.

July 31, 1980; Akii-Bua competes in Round One as part of Uganda 4x400m relay team. Uganda is placed in the second of the three heats. The top two finishing countries of each heat, plus the next two fastest countries would be the finalists. Uganda (3:07.0) was fifth and was eliminated from moving on to the finals. This would be the last time Akii-Bua would compete at the Olympics.

Jonathan Musere

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