Posts Tagged ‘hurdles’

The 1971 US-USSR-World All-Stars Track Meet at University of California, Berkeley: John Akii-Bua, Steve Prefontaine, Pat Matzdorf, Judith Ayaa, and Other Athletes

March 10, 2015

The US-USSR-World All-Stars Track and Field Meet took place on Saturday, July 3rd 1971, in Berkeley at the Edwards Stadium of University of California.


Very recently, on May 30th 1971, John Akii-Bua had commendably reduced the 400 meters-hurdles African record to 49.7 seconds in Kampala, and thereby gained a reasonably significant level of attention. But there was some skepticism about the timing and the track conditions, given that the event was contested on a somewhat unknown and unrecognized African track. Nevertheless, in Berkeley, 21 year-old policeman Akii was considered a major contender for the gold medal. The other two favorites were Wes Williams who was regarded as USA’s top contenders, and Russia’s Vyacheslav Skomorokhov. Williams had at the recent national AAU championships finished second in the 440 yards-hurdles  (which is four yards longer than the metric lap) in an impressive 49.3; while  Skomorokhov who finished fifth in the foregone 1968 Olympics had a 49.1 personal best in the intermediate hurdles.

Eventually, Akii-Bua of Uganda, representing  the World, won (50.1), second was University of Washington’s Jim Seymour (USA) in 50.5, Roger Johnson (World) was third (50.9), Vyacheslav Skomorokhov (USSR) was fourth (50.9), fifth was Wes Williams (51.0) of USA, followed by Yuriy Zorin (USSR) in 53.3.

Akii-Bua’s remarks are mentioned (AP 1971: 19).

“I have been practicing hurdles with both…right…and left leg. I think those who hurdle with only one leg aren’t versatile enough…. I don’t have any set plan to run so many steps in between the hurdles. I just go over them when I get there.”

In the men’s 4x400m relay the USA team (Edesel Garrison, Frederick Newhouse, Tommie Turner, Darwin Bond) triumphed (3:02.9); the World’s team (Alfred Daley, John Akii-Bua, Laighton Priestley, Garth Case) was second (3:08.4); while the USSR team (Boris Savchuk, Yuriy Zorin, Dimitriy Stuklaov, Semyon Kocher) was last.

Judith Ayaa of Uganda, representing the World, participated in the women’s 4x400m relay. This time, the USSR team won (3:36.0). The Soviet runners were Lyudmila Findgenova, Lyudmila Aksenova, Natalya Chistyakova, and Nadyezhda Kolesnikova.  Second an in 3:38.1 was the USA team (Esther Stroy, Gwen Norman, Cheryl Toussaint, and Jarvis Scott). Finishing third in 3:44.1 was the World all-Stars team of Ayaa, Penny Werther, Allison Ross-Edwards, and Yvonne Sanders.

Major highlights at the international track meet included the setting of a new world record in the high jump (7 feet, 6.25 inches) by University of Wisconsin’s Pat Matzdorf (USA); and a new national record in the 5000m (13:30.4) by USA’s Steve Prefontaine (University of Oregon).

Overall in points, the USA won, USSR was second, and the World All-Stars team was third.

Works Cited

AP (July 14, 1971) “For America-Russian Track Duel: U.S. Runners Weren’t Ready,” in “Odessa American.”

Jonathan Musere

John Akii-Bua: Attempt to Smash the Hurdles World Record and the Renaming of Stanley Road

November 30, 2013

John Akii-Bua of Uganda was promoted by the dictator Idi Amin Dada to Assistant Inspector of the Police Force and the main Kampala road named after renowned Welsh-American adventurer-soldier-explorer-journalist Henry Morton Stanley was re-named by the dictator to “Akii-Bua Road.” This was only months after Akii had reduced the 400 meters-hurdles world record to 47.82 seconds at the Olympics in Munich in early September 1972. Among many other things, Henry Stanley is renowned for exalting Uganda as the “Pearl of Africa.” Indeed, Henry Stanley would quite often declare or imply that he was the very first to attach the term to Uganda.

“…’Pearl of Africa’….I applied that…term to Uganda…. Many…travelers…account for the term by adducing the fertility of the soil and the variety of its products; but the truth is that the term aptly illustrates the superior value of Uganda because of its populousness, the intelligence of its people, its strategic position for commerce, and for spreading Christianity–all of which make it pre-eminently a desirable colony for a trading and civilizing nation like ours [England]” (Stanley 1895: 719-720).

In January 1973, 23 year-old Akii-Bua, still fresh out of Munich and still heavily celebrated nationally, was now in Nigeria in the face of an excited high capacity crowd ready to witness the performance of the first African to ever win and establish a world track record in such a technical and grueling event. The VIPs who attended the track event included Nigeria’s president General Yakubu Gowon. The 400 meters-hurdles that requires speed, timing, and jumping over is still referred to as the “man-killer.”

On January 11th in Lagos at the Second All-Africa Games, in a 400mh semi-final heat, a relaxed Akii took his time and still won in 50.7. He was very confident that, despite the absence of the top world class competitors that he had faced at the Olympics, he would have actually broken his own world record if he had given it the effort and the technique. He remarked, “I ran six hurdles with a 13-strides pattern and then cut down to 14-15 strides in the last 200 meters…at full speed, I would have broken the 48 seconds mark” (AAP-Reuters: 1973).

Akii-Bua would also state that he had learned so much about technique and perfectly timing the hurdles from his encouraging friend and hurdling ace David (Dave) Hemery of Britain who is regarded as one of the best hurdlers ever. In 1968 at the Olympics in Mexico City, Hemery established a world record (48.12) in the finals of the 400mh. Hemery finished nearly a second ahead of the silver medallist Gerhard Hennige of West Germany. Hemery was third at the Olympics in Munich. In Lagos, Akii also told that he was struck with malaria, six months before the Olympics in Munich (AAP-Reuters: 1973).

The finals’ lineup for the 400mh in Lagos notably included William (Bill) Koskei of Kenya who as an immigrant had competed for Uganda and notably won a silver medal in the event at the 1970 Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh. Akii was fourth then. But in 1971 in Durham in North Carolina at a USA vs Africa meet, Akii in winning beat Koskei and others and established a world-leading time of 49 seconds. It was then that the athletics world eyed the apparently relaxed and smooth-sailing hurdler Akii-Bua as a top contender for the gold in the forthcoming Olympics in Munich. Koskei was also regarded as an Olympic medal hope, but he would in Munich finish fourth in the first round heat, and thereby be eliminated. Akii, on the other hand, won in all his three heats, including the finals in which he set a world record.

Unlike the Munich Olympics in which Akii was drawn in the disadvantageous innermost “tight” lanes, in Lagos at the finals, he was placed in a middle lane–which is easier to navigate through. The gun went off in Lagos and Akii burst out fast. He seemed to slightly relax and slow down after the last corner, then suddenly pick up speed. Days later, Akii would remark that he indeed slowed down but that when he looked up in the stands at the jubilant and colorful uniformed dignitaries that included the Nigerian President Gowon, he decided to run faster. He did not have to since he was well ahead of the rest of the field. Akii-Bua won in an amazing 48.54 seconds. Though Akii had not attained his lofty goal of obliterating his own world record, the time would be the world’s best in the 400mh in 1973, and it remains among the best ever ran on African soil. Nearly two seconds behind, William Koskei was second (50.22) in a photo-finish with Silver Ayoo (50.25) of Uganda who won the bronze medal.

Overall, Uganda was fourth at the All-Africa Games in Lagos, and that performance in which the nation won many medals (exclusively in track-and-field and boxing) is still Uganda’s best ever at these Games. Uganda ended up with 8 gold medals, 6 silver medals, and 6 bronze medals, placing Uganda fourth overall behind Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, respectively.

 

Works Cited

AAP-Reuters. “Ugandan Plans Attempt at World Time.” Canberra Times. January 12, 1973.

Stanley, H. M. “Uganda Railway.” The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art. Vol. 79 (1895): 719-720.

Jonathan Musere

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

Amos Omolo and John Akii-Bua: Comparative Performances of Two Major Uganda Runners

May 18, 2011

Introduction
Amos Omolo, born in 1937, was a Kenyan immigrant running for Uganda, a well-built 5’10” sprinter (100m, 200m, 400m and the relays). John Akii-Bua, born roughly a decade later in 1949, was an indigenous northern Ugandan, a sprinter, a javelin thrower, a decathlete; and for the most part a hurdler, 400m and 4x400m relay runner. Akii-Bua at 6’2″ was of a lean and well-muscled build. Both Omolo and Akii-Bua were of the Luo language-speaking ethnic grouping of east Africa. Both were policemen. While Omolo was Uganda’s most renowned track star of the 1960’s, Akii-Bua was in turn Uganda’s most significant track athlete of the 1970’s. Akii-Bua’s athletic prowess was discovered relatively early in life when he joined the police force while in his teens. However, Amos Omolo started harvesting his track running abilities relatively late in life, a late bloomer. It was while he was in his mid-twenties that Omolo became a significant international runner; and his personal records were achieved when he was in his early thirties before he soon retired.

The Olympics
Both Omolo and Akii-Bua are significantly remembered for their feats at the Olympics; Omolo especially in 1968 (Mexico City) and Akii especially in 1972 (Munich). At both, the two Olympians ran a full finals’ lap: Omolo in the 400 meters, and Akii-Bua in the 400 meters-hurdles. In both of these Olympic finals, the world record was broken. There were sharp contrasts in the finals’ lane placements: Akii-Bua was in the innermost lane, one which usually slows runners down from taking shorter strides because of the rounder and tighter circumference; while Omolo ran in the outermost lane 8 which while the turns are easier, the runners are less able to gage their position and progress vis-a-vis the runners in the lower lanes.

At the Olympics of 1972, Akii-Bua then in his early 20’s, was relatively young. Amos Omolo in the Olympic finals of 1968, aged 31, was relatively advanced in age and the oldest among the finalists. He was also Uganda’s oldest Olympics participant. In a 400m Olympic quarter-finals heat, Omolo would win in a Uganda record time of 45.33. This national record remained intact for nearly three decades. Akii-Bua’s Olympic gold medal win in the 400 meters-hurdles in 1972 involved the establishment of a 47.82 world record that would stay intact for four years. As a Uganda national record, it has remained intact for four decades. On the other hand, Omolo was beaten into 8th and last place at the 400m finals in 1968. Nevertheless, the crowned gold medallist Lee Edward Evans of the United States had established a new world record that would survive for more than two decades. While Lee Evans here became the first man to ever run a sub-44 seconds 400m, John Akii-Bua in winning became the first man to ever officially run the 400 meters-hurdles below 48 seconds. While Amos Omolo was Uganda’s first Olympic track and field finalist, John Akii-Bua was Uganda’s first Olympic gold medallist and track and field world record holder.

In Mexico City at the Olympics, on October 16th 1968, fifty-five international athletes that were placed in eight heats, were scheduled to run in Round One of the 400m. The four top finishers in each of the heats would advance to the quarter-finals. Amos Omolo won in his Heat Five, finishing in 45.85, a new national record. Four quarter-final heats were ran the next day. Omolo again performed impressively, winning in Heat Two in a new Uganda record of 45.33. The four top finishers in each heat, moved on to the two semi-final heats which would be run later that day. Omolo’s performance in the semi-finals was not as fruitful. The second semi-finals’ witnessed Omolo finishing fourth in 45.52. Of significance, the winner of this heat Lee Edward Evans at age 21 established a new Olympic record time of 44.83. Omolo had narrowly missed being axed from advancing to the finals. The finals were set to feature three African Americans, three Africans, and two Europeans. The next day, October 18th, Omolo was placed in outermost lane in the final; the only Commonwealth of Nations’ finalist. The gun went off, Omolo ran a relatively fast 200m, but thereafter tired and slowed down and seemingly lost hope. He finished last and his time of 47.61 was more than two seconds behind seventh placed Andrzej Baderiski of Poland. Omolo was known to fluctuate widely in his performances, sometimes performing excellently and sometimes performing surprisingly poorly relative to his recent performances. American Lee Evans in lane 6, under pressure from his two fellow Americans Lawrence “Larry” James and Ron Freeman, had won in an astounding world record of 43.86. All three Americans were less than 22 years old, the youngest among the finalists.

As for Akii-Bua at the Olympics in the 400mh in 1972, in all three rounds including the finals, he ran in either lane one or lane two. In the first qualifying round that took place on August 31st, Akii was placed in the fourth heat (out of the five) in lane two. The top three finishers of each heat plus one next top finisher would move on to the semi-finals. Akii-Bua won in his heat, finishing in 50.35 seconds. The two semi-finals heats were held the next day. Akii, placed in lane two, won in a relatively fast time of 49.25, followed by world leading Ralph Mann (USA) in 49.53, followed by Olympic champion Dave Hemery (Great Britain) in 49.66. The four leading finishers of each of the semi-final heats would move on to the finals. Next day, September 2nd witnessed Akii-Bua make history by breaking the world record and being the first to officially run the race below 48 seconds. He had done it in 47.82 seconds while running in the restrictive lane one, while the runners-up (same sequence of finishing as their semi-final heat) were in the more favorable lanes 6 (Ralph Mann who won silver with a time of 48.51) and lane 5 (Dave Hemery with a bronze medal finish of 48.52). After four decades, Akii-Bua remains Uganda’s only Olympic gold-medallist and Africa’s only Olympic gold medal hurdler as well as short-distance runner. What Amos Omolo did not achieve for Uganda at the Olympics in 1968, Akii-Bua rose to the occasion in 1972 to cement for Uganda, Africa, and the rest of the world!

Amos Omolo and William Santino Dralu, Uganda’s top sprinters, were selected to run the 100m and 200m dashes respectively in Mexico City in 1968. All the rounds and the final were ran on October 13th 1968. Omolo was placed in the second heat of Round One. There were nine heats and the top three finishers in each heat, plus the next five fastest runners would move on to the quarter-finals. Omolo finished fourth in this preliminary round, posting a time of 10.50. The time would enable him to move on to the quarter-finals. Omolo was placed in the third heat (out of four) of the quarter-finals. The first four of each heat would move on to the semi-finals. Competition was quite intense. Omolo was beaten into 7th place and out of the competition; but with a time of 10.45, he had improved on his previous timing. Also significant was the breaking of the world record, twice in this quarter-final. The world record was set by Hermes Ramirez of Cuba (10.10), and later by Charlie Greene of USA (10.02). In the finals, American Jim Hines would win the gold medal in a world record time of 9.95, the silver would go to Lennox Miller of Jamaica, and Charlie Greene would win the bronze.

The flashback to the 1964 Olympics held in Tokyo involved Omolo competing in the 400m and the 4x100m relay. On October 17th 1964, Omolo was scheduled to run in the third heat (out of seven) of the preliminary round. The top four runners of each heat, plus the next four top finishers would move on to the next round. Omolo aged 27 finished in a time of 47.6 in the very first round, and his 5th place would not allow Omolo to advance to the next round. On October 20th, Omolo was part of Uganda’s 4x100m relay team (with Erasmus Amukun, Aggrey Awori, and James Odongo) that was eliminated in the preliminary round. Uganda’s relay group finished 6th in 41.4 seconds.

As for Akii-Bua, Uganda politically boycotted the 1976 Olympics that were held in Montreal. Akii had been scheduled to compete for Uganda in the 400 meters-hurdles and had been training and competing in Germany and USA. He even ran a 45.82 personal best in the 400m flat in 1976. However, the third week of June, Akii tore a thigh (left hamstring) muscle that would have reduced his chances of winning a medal or even competing at the 1976 Olympics at Montreal.

The Olympics that were held in Moscow in July 1980 were also boycotted by many countries, significantly reducing the pool and strength of the competitors. Akii’s performance had declined, but he qualified to represent Uganda again in the 400mh and in addition the 4x400m relay. On July 24th, Akii ran in the first heat (out of the three) of the first round of the 400 meters-hurdles. He was in the relatively favorable middle-lane 4, a far cry from the Olympics of 1972 where he had been placed in either restrictive lane one or two in all three rounds including the final. Aged 30 in Moscow, Akii was the oldest of the competitors in the low hurdles. In this first round, on July 24 1980, Akii finished 5th in 50.87 seconds. He moved onto the semi-finals given that he was one of the next four fastest hurdlers to the top four fastest finishers of each of the heats. The next day, Akii-Bua, drawn in the outermost lane 8 in the semi-final, finished 7th in 51.10 seconds. He was eliminated from moving on to the finals. On July 31, Akii-Bua was in heat two of the first round of the 4x400m relay. Despite having Africa’s strongest long-relay team in Moscow, Uganda finished 5th (3:07.0) in this first round and was disabled from moving on to the semi-finals. Uganda’s other relay athletes were Silver Ayoo, Charles Dramiga, and Pius Olowo.

Both Akii-Bua and Amos Omolo apparently represented Uganda at two Olympic venues, and both their Olympic finales were when they were in their early 30’s. Omolo was less consistent in his performances whereby he sometimes achieved exceptional times and sometimes was simply satisfactory. But notably, Omolo’s personal best performances were when he was in his thirties. Akii-Bua’s personal best records were attained when he was in his early and mid-twenties. Akii was a determined athlete despite the unfavorable social and political climate of Uganda at that time. Amos Omolo competed for Uganda during a period of relative peace.

The Commonwealth of Nations Games
The then British Empire Commonwealth Games in 1962 took place in Perth in Australia in the last week of November. Amos Omolo was scheduled to represent Uganda in the 440 yards dash and in the 4x440y relay. Uganda’s relay team would eventually not participate in the relay. As for the 440y, on November 26th 25 year-old Omolo impressively won in the third (of a total 6 heats) of the first round, finishing in 47.20 seconds. Next came the two semi finals in which qualifying Omolo was placed in the second one. Here on November 26th, Omolo (46.96) was beaten into second place by George Kerr (46.93) of Jamaica in a photo-finish. The finals, later in the day would be quite a battle between the top three finishers. In another photo-finish, George Kerr (46.74) won the gold medal, Robbie Brightwell of England won silver, and Omolo (46.88) won the bronze. The next runner-up finished nearly one second behind. Omolo emerged as a formidable and promising runner in the Commonwealth and in Africa. This would be Uganda’s only athletics medal at the venue, one of Uganda’s first medals at such internationally significant games. It was also an exciting time for Uganda as it closely followed the granting of political independence from Britain on October 9th 1962.

The 1966 Commonwealth Games would be hosted by Kingston in Jamaica from August 5th to 13th. Omolo would again be placed to represent Uganda in the 440y and in the 4x400y relay. The preliminary round of the 440y would be contested on August 8th and Omolo was placed in the fourth heat. Omolo (48.3) finished second to Martin Winbolt Lewis of England (47.6) and advanced to the semi-finals that would be contested on August 11th. Omolo was placed in the second of the two semi-final heats. Omolo finished 6th in 47.84 seconds and was eliminated from moving on to the finals. He had therefore failed to replicate his presence in the finals in which he had won the bronze at the previous Commonwealth Games venue.

Next for Omolo would be the long relay on August 13th. There was just one preliminary (semi-final) round before the final and Uganda was placed in the second of the two heats. Uganda’s relay team of Omolo, George Odeke (future national coach and prominent sports administrator), Francis Hategakimana (Hatega), and Asuman Bawala Nkedi won in their heat (3:13.4), but the runners in the other (first) heat were relatively faster. The finals saw Uganda turning up a disappointing 8th and last place in 3:13.6. Trinidad and Tobago won in 3:02.8, followed by Canada, then bronze for Great Britain & Northern Ireland. Also, all of Uganda’s 4x400y relay runners had, including Omolo competed in the individual 400y but had not performed well.

Edinburgh in Scotland would be the next venue for the Commonwealth Games, from July 17th to 25th in 1970. Omolo had been a finalist in the 400m at the Olympic Games of 1968, and was 8th. In Edinburgh, Omolo was nearly 33 years old which was at that time considered a relatively advanced age for a sprinter. This time Omolo was placed to to run only in the 100m for Uganda. His performance in the second heat (out of the 8 preliminary heats) was lukewarm. Omolo was eliminated from the competition after finishing 6th in a time of 10.76 seconds. This would be Omolo’s last Commonwealth Games’ performance. Uganda was in contention for the men’s 4x400m relay, but the team of Bill (William) Koskei, Charles Obilu, William Santino Dralu, and Daniel Oboth would be disqualified during the preliminary heats.

John Akii-Bua’s presence in Edinburgh would be the first and last time he would represent Uganda at the Commonwealth Games. This quite contrasted with Omolo’s three-time presence at the Commonwealth Games. Internationally unknown Akii-Bua aged 20 would compete in the 110 meters-hurdles and in the 400 meters-hurdles. On July 17th, Akii was placed in the first heat (out of the three) of the preliminary round of the 110mh. He finished fourth in 14.39 seconds, and advanced to the semi-finals. Interestingly, the winner in this heat and eventual gold medallist was David Hemery of England who had won gold in the 400mh at the Olympics of 1968 in a new world record, and who would win the bronze medal at the next Olympic venue in which Akii would win the gold and break Hemery’s world record. The semi-finals of the 110mh in Edinburgh would be contested the next day–July 18th. Akii Bua finished 5th in 14.43 seconds, coming short of moving on to the finals.

On the same day July 18th, Akii ran in the first round of the 400mh. He was placed in the second heat of the three heats, and he won in 51.82 seconds. Next would be two semi-final heats on July 21. Akii, in the first semi-final finished second (51.94) after John Sherwood of England. The second semi-final was won by Uganda’s Bill Koskei in 51.39 seconds. In the finals that were ran on the same day, Akii (51.14) was beaten into fourth place behind gold medallist John Sherwood (50.03), silver medallist Bill Koskei (50.15), and Charles Yego of Kenya (50.19).

Akii-Bua’s first significant introduction to the athletic world was his 400 meters-hurdles win at the Africa vs USA (USA-Pan African) meet on 17th July 1971 in Durham, North Carolina. Akii-Bua won in an astonishing 49 seconds, a new Africa record, and the fastest time of the year.

All-Africa Games
At these continental games, Amos Omolo competed at venues in the 1960’s but did not win any medals. On the other hand, Akii-Bua won a gold and silver medals at these Games. The first of these Games were held in 1965 in the capital Brazzaville of Congo. Akii was at the All-Africa Games in Lagos in January 1973, fresh from the Olympic gold and world record setting in Munich in the Fall of 1972. Akii-Bua’s winning time in Lagos was in an excellent 48.54 seconds, nearly two seconds ahead of runners up William Koskei (50.22) of Kenya, and Silver Ayoo (50.25) of Uganda. It was the fastest 400mh time ever recorded on the continent. Akii was also part of the 1973 4x400m relay Uganda team (3:07.21) that won the bronze medal behind winners Kenya (3:06.38) and silver medallists Nigeria (3:06.98).

The erratic occurring All-Africa Games were held five years later, in 1978. This time in Algiers in Algeria, Akii (49.55) was narrowly beaten into second place by Daniel Kimaiyo (49.48) of Kenya. Akii, similar to the previous venue, additionally was part of the 4x400m relay team. This time, the Uganda team performed significantly better, both in positioning and time recorded. In the finals in 1978, the winner was Nigeria (3:03.24) followed by silver medallists Uganda (3:04.20), thereafter Kenya (3:05.92). This would be Akii’s last appearance at the All-Africa Games. The next venue would be in 1987 in Nairobi in Kenya.

East and Central African Championships
In 1968, when the venue was Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, Omolo won the gold medal in the 400m, finishing in 46.7 seconds. Earlier, in 1964, with the venue Kisumu in Kenya, Omolo was part of Uganda’s 4x400m relay team that won the gold medal.

Akii-Bua’s haul of gold medal wins at these champions was bigger than Omolo’s. The championships in Kampala in 1969 involved Akii-Bua winning the gold in the 110 meters-hurdles in 14.6 seconds. In 1971, in Lusaka in Zambia, Akii won the gold in the 400 meters-hurdles with a finishing time of 50.5 seconds. At the same distance, Akii-Bua would again win gold in 1975 when the venue was Mombasa in Kenya. He was timed at 50.2 seconds. At the same venue, Akii was part of Uganda’s 4x400m relay team that won the gold in 3:09.01.

Conclusion
Amid the many comparisons and contrasts, Amos Omolo and Akii-Bua will forever reign among Uganda’s and Africa’s greatest athletes. As Omolo was retiring from athletics, young Akii-Bua was beginning to shine. Akii took over the helm to attain the universal top athletic status that Omolo had strived to but failed to achieve. Akii-Bua has for four centuries remained Uganda’s most significant track athlete.

References
Murphy, F. The Last Protest: Lee Evans in Mexico City. Windsprint Press, Michigan: 2006.

Phillips, B. Honour of Empire, Glory of Sport: the History of Athletics at the Commonwealth Games. Parrs Wood, Michigan: 2000.

http://www.iaaf.org/athletes/biographies/country
http://www.sports-reference.com/olympics
www.topsinathletics.info

Jonathan Musere

John Akii-Bua: African Olympic Gold Medal Hurdler

February 5, 2011

Born on 3rd December 1949 in Abako sub-county village in Moroto County in Lango District in Uganda, John Charles Akii-Bua (occasionally misspelled as Aki-Bua, or Aki-Buwa, or Akii-Buwa) left school early, at age 15, with an elementary school education. His leaving school early partly had to do with the death of his father and his having to help with family labor whereby he herded cattle and also worked in a local family retail store. As a boy, Akii was not significantly competitive in athletics. His informal athletic build-up came from the rigors of herding and protecting cattle from wild animals. In an interview in “Sports Illustrated,” soon after his Olympic gold medal win, Akii would proudly remark that the lions were particularly weary of his presence when he was there and would not go after the animals he was herding.

When Akii joined the police force in the capital city Kampala, still as a teenager, he again benefited athletically from the rigorous police drills. Akii’s potential in formal athletics was soon noticed, he started training in both track and field events. A police officer Joram Ochana who conveniently was the Africa’s 440 yards-hurdles champion intensified Akii’s training regimen. Akii soon won in eight events at the national police track and field championships. Apart from the hurdles, Akii was quite good at the javelin, the sprints, the 800m, among others and he would even establish a national decathlon record. Concentrating on the hurdles intensified after he was placed under the tutelage of the new national coach from the United Malcolm Arnold. Arnold was Uganda national coach from 1968 to 1972.

Akii-Bua triumphed in the 110 meters-hurdles finals at the East and Central African Championships held in Kampala in 1969. The influence of Arnold, convinced Akii that he would reap more benefits as a 400 meters-hurdler. In the finals of the 400 meters-hurdles at the Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh in 1970) Akii-Bua struggled with a hernia and back strain injury, he was trailing last at the last 100 meters, but still raced in fast to become fourth in 51.14 seconds. Akii-Bua was notably an unconventional hurdler—he could easily jump over hurdles either with the left or right leading leg.

Akii-Bua’s first significant introduction to the athletic world was his win short-hurdles win at the USA vs. Africa (USA-Pan African) meet on 17th July 1971 in Durham, North Carolina. Akii-Bua won in an astonishing 49 seconds, a new Africa record, and the fastest time of the year. The world record of 48.1 held by Dave Hemery of Britain was less than one second away! Akii had conquered his demons of the Commonwealth Games, neatly beating his doubting African competition including Kenyan hurdler William Koskei who had won the silver at the Commonwealth of Nations Games. The track meet was significantly historical and heavily highlighted by Ebony magazine. Other African track stars that performed exceptionally well included legends Kipchoge Keino (1500m) and Ben Jipcho (3000m steeplechase) of Kenya and Miruts Yifter (5000m and 10000m) of Ethiopia. A couple more African athletes exceeded their expectations at the meet. Akii-Bua would soon be listed in the Afro-American Encyclopedia. He would be offered athletic scholarships from several American colleges but he would turn them down on the grounds that his family needed his presence and financial support at home in Uganda.

At the Olympic Games of 1972 in Munich, Akii-Bua, (by now in Uganda nicknamed “the flying policeman”) was the only one of the competitors, to win in all three of the heats in which he was placed, including the acclaimed finals win. In all the competitions, Akii-Bua would be placed in the strenuous and disadvantageous either of the inner lanes one or two.

The Semi-Final in which Akii-Bua was placed also included top medal prospects David Hemery (Olympic champion from Britain) and American and world leading Ralph Mann (United States). Here Akii-Bua beat his top competition, Ralph Mann was second, and Dave Hemery was third. The Finals witnessed the medal tally in exactly the same order.

At the Olympics of 1972, on 2nd September, Akii-Bua officially became the first man in history to run the 400 meters-hurdles below 48 seconds, finishing first in the acclaimed 47.82 world record.

Akii-Bua and his coach Malcolm Arnold had actually predicted a possible 47 seconds world record gold medal win at the Olympics. Akii had trained hard, doing repetitive short and long-distance hurdle drill runs with heavy weights attached to his body. During a practice run, Akii-Bua is said to have unofficially run under the 400 meters-hurdles world record at Wankulukuku Stadium near Kampala. But Akii-Bua and Arnold humbly did not make much light about it, and waited for the official moment to come. Many, including, Dave Hemery, believe that Akii-Bua would have posted a significantly faster world record if he had been in the convenient middle lanes other than the “tight” inner first lane in the hurdles Olympic final.

Compared to his renowned African peer athletes such as Ben Jipcho (Kenya), Mike Boit (Kenya), and Filbert Bayi (Tanzania), Akii-Bua was significantly much less active in international competition. Many attribute this to the Uganda regime of Idi Amin (1972-1979) as being detrimental to Akii’s athletic potential. During the regime, Akii and many of his relatives became targets of political interest, he was occasionally under house arrest, and his being underfunded meant that he would not compete and train internationally as much as his peers. Even at the Olympic Games in Munich, Akii was wearing an old pair of puma running shoes and a spike on one of them was missing. Akii-Bua was of the ethnic group (Lango) of President Apollo Milton Obote who was overthrown by Idi Amin’s loyal soldiers. There were persecutions during the Amin regime and many Langi fled into exile, many into Tanzania, and they would make attempts to overthrow Amin. Some of Akii-Bua’s relatives were killed during Amin’s regime.

After the 1972 Olympic gold medal win, after four decades, John Akii-Bua is still the only African short distance and also hurdles Olympic gold medallist. He would not participate in the 1976 Olympics that were held in Montreal because of the political boycott by Uganda and many other African countries. But notably, Akii-Bua, with a personal best of 48.69s in the 400 meters-hurdles, was ranked 6th in the world. Also, several weeks prior to the Olympics, he had won in the 400m flat at a meet in Dusseldorf in a personal best of 45.82s. Unfortunately, only three weeks prior to the Olympics, Akii’s left hamstring muscle tore. That would have reduced his chances of winning a medal in Montreal. It turned out that American Edwin Corley Moses would win the gold, finishing in a world-record time of 47.63s.

Jonathan Musere

John Akii-Bua and the Path to Uganda’s Olympic Gold Medal

July 26, 2010

John Akii-Bua broke the 400 meters-hurdles world record on September 2, 1972 at the Olympic Games held in Munich in West Germany, in the finals crossing the tape in 47.82 seconds. This was astounding because he was running in the “tight” inside first lane that obligates runners to move slower in smaller strides than runners in the rest of the lanes whose circumferences are progressively less angular and sharper, therefore easier to traverse. The 400mh is considered to be the most trying track event: it involves combining skill, timing, strength, and stamina. Because during that and preceding eras native African hurdlers were not expected to perform so astonishingly well, many are still (erroneously) transfixed into thinking that Akii-Bua was the first African Olympic gold medalist. Akii-Bua is Uganda’s greatest athlete. Given Akii-Bua’s African background and superb performance, plus his celebratory antics right after his win, John Akii-Bua became the 1972 Olympics’ highlight. Akii’s showboating included his continuing to run and hurdle for 30 meters past the finish-line, his glowingly smiling and waving to admirers in the audience while jumping over imaginary hurdles, his receiving a Uganda flag from a spectator and waving it as he became the inventor of the now legendary “victory lap.” Akii-Bua’s performances have continuously inspired many hurdlers of African descent to greatness, and they include Edwin Moses, Samuel Matete, and Amadou Dia Ba.

Zambian 400 meters-hurdles legend Samuel Matete was born on July 27, 1968 in Chingola in Zambia. Samuel Matete is notably one of the world’s foremost 400 meters hurdlers of all time. For young Matete, legendary Uganda hurdler John Akii-Bua was his foremost sports idol. Matete still holds the African record of 47.10 seconds in the 400mh event, one he set in the German city of Zurich on August 7, 1991. At this Weltklasse Zurich (World Class Zurich), an annual athletics meeting in Switzerland which is part of the IAAF Golden League, and is sometimes referred to as the One-Day Olympics, Matete undeniably made his most memorable athletics mark. In his home country, Matete originally trained under rudimentary conditions, including setting up handcrafted wooden hurdles. Only three other people, all from the USA, have officially ever ran faster personal bests than Samuel Matete. These are: Bryan Bronson in 47.03 seconds (set in New Orleans in Louisiana on June 21, 1998), Edwin Moses in 47.02 seconds (set in Koblenz in Germany on August 31, 1983), and Kevin Young in an astounding world record and so far the only official time below 47 seconds, of 46.78 seconds (on August 6, 1992 in Barcelona, at the Olympic Games, in the finals).

The only other Africa runners with faster personal bests than Akii-Bua are El Hadj Amadou Dia Ba of Senegal. He ran the intermediate hurdles in 47.23 seconds at the Olympics of 1988 that were held in Seoul in South Korea. Here, aged 29, Dia Ba was in the finals beaten to second place by 29 year-old American Andre Phillips (47.19s, an Olympic record), and aging 33 year-old world record holder Edwin Corley Moses settled for the bronze in a time of 47.56 seconds. The performance in this Olympic final was astounding: Andre Phillips established an Olympic record and Edwin Moses (despite his bronze medal placing) had ran faster than he had at two previous Olympics at which he had won gold! Courtesy of Dia Ba, this final evidenced the breaking of Akii-Bua’s intermediate hurdles’ African record. In addition to Samuel Matete, the only other Africa runner with a personal-best timing faster than Akii-Bua’s is Llewellyn George Herbert of South Africa with a timing of 47.81s in a third place bronze-medal finish in the Finals at the Olympics of 2000 that were held in Sydney.

In 1964 John Akii-Bua, a 15 year-old with an elementary academic education, left school. For the next two years Akii settled on helping shepherd his big family’s 120-herd of cattle. Akii had long learned how to milk and how to employ the cattle to plow. Akii tells Kenny Moore in implying that as a youth he grew up to be a tough and athletic herdsboy: “I milked them [cattle], I plowed with them, everything. In 1956, when I was very young, lions took sheep and goats from our farm, even cattle. But none came when I tended them. I did have a close look at some very big pythons. And we have wild monkeys. They can tease you and throw things. They make you run away” (Sports Illustrated”: ‘A Play of Light’, November 20, 1972).

Akii’s devotion to family labor duties became even the more significant because his father–county Chief Bua, a prominent county administrator, died in 1965. Akii was only 16 years old then, and he estimated that at the time of his father’s demise, he was one among forty-four siblings (16 sisters and 27 brothers). Akii’s father had five wives, but had earlier on divorced three. The family, which dwelled in the same compound, was semi-nomadic in sociodemographic character, occasionally moving from county to county. Akii-Bua is listed as born on December 3, 1949 (to mother Imat Solome Bua) in Abako sub-county village in Moroto County in Lango District in Uganda. Among the other areas the family settled in and out of were Dokolo, Kwania, and Oyam. The common listing of Akii-Bua’s birth seems to be fairly accurate, but some of his family implies that he was born earlier than 1949. In the Uganda newspaper “Observer,” the article “John Akii-Bua is A Forgotten Hero” dated March 28 2010, Denis H.Obua implies that Akii-Bua was born three or four years earlier than 1949. Suffice it to say. not many decades ago, dates of birth of many African children were not recorded or remembered.

Soon after Akii’s father died, one of Akii’s older brothers picked himself to be a cashier in his bar. He was the cashier until he joined the police in 1966. Akii passed his basic police training in 1967. Before joining the Uganda police, Akii’s only memory of athletic competition was domestic: his father would set up basic group-age sibling competitions over various distances for trophies of candy (sweets). Akii tells Kenny Moore, “I don’t think I ever won. I had to beg sweets from my brothers” (“Sports Illustrated”: ‘A Play of Light’, November 20, 1972).

Along with being introduced to active competition, Akii became inspired by Uganda athletes Ogwang, Etolu, and Opaka. Lawrence Ogwang (born in November 1932) is recognized as Uganda’s first major competitive athlete; he represented Uganda at the Olympics of 1956 that were held in Melbourne in Australia and took 20th place in the triple jump (14.72m), and eliminated in the earlier rounds in the long jump after being 27th with a jump of 6.62m. Lawrence Ogwang is a relative of Akii-Bua and he is sometimes listed as his brother.

High-jumper Patrick Etolu, born in Soroti District on March 17, 1935 is notable for finishing second at the 1954 British Empire Commonwealth Games, fourth in the same event and Games in 1958, and ninth in the same event and Games in 1962. In the summer Olympic Games of 1956 held in Melbourne, Patrick Etolu emerged 12th with a jumping height of 1.96 meters. Tito Opaka was a high-hurdler.

Akii started running competitively when he joined the police. The window into his athletic potential was initially shaped by the police drill which routinely started at 5:30am with physical training and three miles of cross-country running. Akii’s stretching flexibility was notable, the cause for his selection into high-hurdling. Uganda’s Jerom (Jerome, Jorem?) Ochana, a superior policeman and Africa’s 440 yard-hurdles record holder, was conveniently there to train Akii. One of the coaching ordeals involved Ochana placing a high-jump bar a couple of feet above the hurdle to shape Akii into learning to keep his head and body low. Akii recounts the ordeal to Kenny Moore: “Can you see this scar on my forehead? Ochana…made me listen. I used to bleed a lot in our exercises, knocking the hurdles with my knees and ankles, keeping my head down” (“Sports Illustrated”: ‘A Play of Light’, November 20, 1972).

In the first week of November 1962, at a track meet in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), a tune-up for the forthcoming British Empire Commonwealth Games to soon be held in Perth in Australia, Ochana secured the 440 yard-hurdles victory in 52.3 seconds. Ochana went on to win in the same event at the East and Central African Championships that were held in the city of Kisumu in Kenya. Ochana was in Tokyo in 1964 for the Olympics. In the third of five first round heats that allowed the three top finishers and next one fastest to advance to the semi-final round, 29 year-old Ochana was eliminated when he finished 4th in 52.4 seconds, on October 14th. In the end, Ochana achieved a 19th overall ranking.

John Akii-Bua, soon after winning in four police championship events in 1967, became significantly recognized and was thereafter placed under Briton Malcolm Arnold the new national coach. Akii still holds Uganda’s decathlon record of 6933 points set in 1971 in Kampala. Starting from the mid-1970’s, less and less attention, and fewer and fewer resources were allotted to the development of field events in Uganda. The presence of Ugandan decathlon athletes waned.

Akii won in the 110 meters-hurdles finals at the East and Central African Championships (an annual event originally primarily involving track and field stars from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia) held in Kampala in 1969. William (Bill) Koskei, a native of Kenya, originally competing for Uganda, won the 400 meters-hurdles gold in a time of 51.4 seconds. Koskei’s athletics career will forever be associated with Akii-Bua’s. With the influence of the coach Malcolm Arnold, Akii-Bua became convinced that he would reap more rewards as a 400 meters-hurdler. It was at these East and Central African Championships that both Akii-Bua and Koskei first displayed international competence.

In 1972, the same Championships held in the Tanzania capital Dar-es-Salaam, Koskei this time running for his native Kenya, again won in the 400 meters-hurdles in 50.7 seconds. By this time, Somalia and Ethiopia had enlisted their athletes in the Championships. In 1977, the same Championships held in Somalia capital Mogadishu, William Koskei now nearly 30 years of age, again won the gold in the 400m hurdles, after hitting the tape in 50.6 seconds. Koskei proved that he had maintained stability in his athletics career.

It is as a Uganda runner, that William Koskei is remembered for his most prestigious individual international stint: the silver medal he won in the 400m hurdles at the British Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh in Scotland from 16th to 25th July 1970. Koskei won in the third heat of the first round, in a time of 51.37 seconds. Next came the semi-finals. Koskei comfortably won in 51.39 seconds, Kenya’s Charles Kipkemboi Yego coming in second in this semi-final in 51.73 seconds. In the finals, John Sherwood of England won in 50.03 seconds, Koskei came in second in 50.15 seconds, Kenyan Charles Kipkemboi Yego came in third in 50.19 seconds. Akii-Bua struggled with a back strain and hernia injury, was trailing last at the final 100 meters, but still raced in fast to come in fourth in 51.14 seconds.

In 1970, Bill Koskei of Uganda became ranked 7th among men 400 meters hurdles runners in the All-Time World Rankings behind hurdlers from rank 1-7 respectively: Jean-Claude Nallet (France), Ralph Mann (USA), Wayne Collett (USA), Ari Salin (Finland), John Sherwood (Great Britain), and Charles Kipkemboi Yego (Kenya). The year 1970 would be the only one that Koskei would be ranked among the top ten in the world among the All-Time World Rankings. However, “Track and Field News” ranked Kenya’s Koskei as 10th in the world in 1973, and 9th in 1974. Akii-Bua was not in the top-10 All-Time World Rankings of 1970. But in just the following year, he became ranked third behind Ralph Mann and Jean-Claude Nallet. In 1972 and 1973, his leading world performances placed Akii comfortably at no.1. Akii was less active and prominent in 1974 whereby he became ranked no.8. But Akii resurged to no. 2 in 1975, behind Alan Pascoe of Great Britain and ahead of Jim Bolding (USA) and Ralph Mann.

The year 1976, an Olympic year saw many countries, including Uganda, boycott the Olympics. The showdown between Edwin Moses (who would break Akii-Bua’s World record) and Akii had been excitingly looked forward to. But it did not happen! American Edwin Moses, a college student and recent convert to the hurdles skyrocketed to the no.1 rank, followed by Mike Shine and Jim Bolding (both of the USA), Alan Pascoe, followed by Akii ranked no.5.

At a track meet held in Dusseldorf in West Germany, in June 1976, Akii won in the 400 meters-flat, in a personal best time of 45.82 seconds, beating upcoming Olympic relay bronze-medalist German Franz-Peter Hofmeister (46.39s) into second place, and European record-holder and Olympic finalist Karl Honz (West Germany) fading into third place. Only a couple of months before Montreal 1976, this was Akii’s most profound pre-Olympic display of evidence that he was very much in contention for another Olympic medal. This would be the year that Akii-Bua would last be on the top-10 All-Time World Rankings.

In 1972 the performance of Commonwealth Games’ silver medalist William Koskei (who had formerly ran for Uganda), at the summer Olympics held in Munich in West Germany from August 26, 1972 to September 11, 1972, was very much looked forward to. Although not ranked among the World’s top ten 400 meters-hurdlers in 1971 or even 1972, Koskei was still regarded as an Olympic medal hope. Koskei, together with Akii-Bua of Uganda reigned as Africa’s top hurdlers. The August 28, 1972 issue of “Sports Illustrated” predictably listed that American Ralph Mann would win Olympic gold, that Bill Koskei would come in second, and that John Akii-Bua of Uganda would win the bronze medal and that the three were the premier medal prospects.

At the Olympic Games in 1972, William Koskei, though running in the favorable lane 4, was disappointingly eliminated in the first round. His fourth place finish in Heat 2, in a time of 50.58 seconds would not carry him onto the next round. It was virtually Koskei’s last chance at the Olympics, given that the next two Olympics, held in Montreal (1976) and Moscow (1980) would be boycotted by Kenya and many other nations. It was in 1972 that Koskei was at his peak, the year he ran a personal best of 49 seconds. At the Olympics in 1972, Uganda’s John Akii-Bua would win in a world record of 47.82 seconds, becoming the first man ever to officially run the 400m hurdles in less than 48 seconds. Ralph Mann won silver by several yards away, and former Olympic champion David Hemery of Great Britain racing in a very close third. Even after 40 years, Uganda seems to indefinitely celebrate Akii-Bua’s Olympic medal triumph, the only Olympic gold that the country has ever garnered. President Idi Amin, Uganda’s dictator from 1971 to 1979, would soon reward policeman Akii by promoting him to Assistant Inspector of Police (Police Lieutenant), giving him a house (from the many dispossessed from east Asians expelled from or who had fled Uganda), naming a prominent lengthy road in Kampala (Stanley Road–that had been named after American explorer Henry Morton Stanley) “Akii-Bua Road.” Since then, many sports establishments have ben named in Akii’s name.

It is intriguing to more thoroughly follow both the road to Akii’s greatest sports triumphs and the thereafter.

Akii-Bua fascinated his international competition by his unique hurdling and training methods. In the Los Angeles article “Akii-Bua Has Method for Hurdles” in “The Spokesman Review” (June 18, 1972 on page 29): “John Akii-Bua approaches the intermediate hurdles race with abandon and for that reason he’s being picked by many as the next Olympic champion in the 400 meter event.” Akii was known to run unconventionally, not confined to the conventional method of planning to interchange 13 to 15 strides between each hurdle. For example, Ralph Mann, the American champion, had an established plan of running 13 strides between the first five hurdles, change gears to 14 strides over the next two, and then switch to 15 steps over the next three hurdles. In the “Spokesman Review” piece, Akii-Bua is quoted as saying:

“I like to run 14 steps between the hurdles but when I run and get to the hurdle in 13 steps, I say ‘okay’ and I jump it. …I just run hard between the hurdles and go over them when I get there. …[at the forthcoming Olympics] I will try to run 13 steps between the hurdles but I will still jump them when they come up to me.”

Some years later, legendary American Edwin Moses, the greatest intermediate hurdler of all time would fascinate the world with his long flowing strides that would allow him to stride 13 steps in between all the hurdles. Akii was also touted for being advantaged with his ambidextrous ability to hurdle easily with either his right or left leg.

Previously, at the U.S.-Russian-World All-Star track meet held in July of 1971 in Berkeley at the University of California Edwards Stadium, Akii-Bua won in the intermediate hurdles in an impressive 50.1 seconds, on July 3. Ralph Mann was not among the competitors. Jim Seymour (USA), now at the University of Washington and a would-be USA hurdler in the 1972 forthcoming Olympics, came in second in 50.5 seconds. In July 1971 in Durham in North Carolina, Akii-Bua had won in the 400 meters-hurdles at the Africa vs. USA meet. Akii-Bua proved he was not a fluke by clearly beating African rival Koskei, alongside the rest of the contingent of Africans and Americans, and winning in an impressive personal best of 49.05 seconds. American and number one ranked champion Ralph Mann did not show up. He was competing in Europe.

In July 1972, closer to the Olympics, Akii-Bua won the event at the Compton Invitational in Los Angeles in a good time of 49.6 seconds. After the time was announced, Akii-Bua remarked in astonishment that the time was too fast, given that he had hardly done any hurdling training in the past three months. He had not wanted to run that fast that early in the season and make himself vulnerable to injury and burnout. It is to be taken into consideration that prior to 1980, men’s 400 meters-hurdles timings below 50 seconds were considered very good or excellent. And at this time, Akii’s official best time was 49 seconds. A few months before the Olympics, Akii felt that his 169 pounds on a 6’2″ frame was too light and he wished to build up strength and weight to 180 pounds in time for the Olympics.

Sports enthusiasts in Uganda were generally of the opinion that though Akii-Bua was capable of winning an Olympic medal, he did not train hard enough and was not dedicated and focused enough. He often came across as carefree. Some of his times, especially at home were not satisfactory. He was also beaten into second place by European hurdlers, such as Greek Cypriot Stavros Tziortzis and Soviet Union’s Yevgeny Gavrilenko, in a couple of occasions in European meets. There was during that era also the prevailing universal attitude that hurdling was too technical and scientific an event for black Africans, this worsened by Africans’ mediocre training facilities.

Further, despite Akii-Bua’s impressive performances, he had ascended to international recognition rather quickly. He started running the intermediate hurdles late in 1969. His fourth place finishing in the 400 meters-hurdles finals at the Commonwealth Games in 1970, was followed by his establishment of an African record, including wins in several international meets in the United States and Europe in 1971 and early 1972. In a way, Akii-Bua was still relatively unknown on the world athletics scene. Though not by his choice, he had not competed against some of the premier world intermediate hurdlers such as Ralph Mann and David Hemery. In sum, Akii was not regarded by many as a major medal prospect at the forthcoming Olympics that would take place in Germany in 1972. And even if he did eventually win, this would likely be considered a fluke!

Contradicting the prevailing opinion on Akii-Bua prior to the Olympics was the revelation that in fact Akii-Bua had eyed the Olympic gold medal and breaking the 400m hurdles world record quite seriously! He aimed to win in a big way! It turns out that Akii’s regimen of training included a lot of cross-country and hill running in Uganda rainy conditions because a dry track was not always readily available to him. His hurdling training was grueling, involving him strapping a jacket weighted with 25-35 pounds of lead to his back and running the hurdles (heightened to 42 inches high as compared to the conventional 36 inches) for 1500 meters at least six times a week. This is mentioned by legendary Jesse Owens in the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” of September 4, 1972 in the article: “Akii-Bua’s Win Impressive.” The 400mh world record, held by David Hemery, was 48.1 seconds. Akii had never officially ran the intermediate hurdles distance in less than 49 seconds. Yet, weeks prior to the Olympics, he was very confident of running the distance in 47 seconds if the weather would be ideal (“John Akii-Bua, an Athlete Who’s Just too Good to Lose” by Doug Gilbert in “The Montreal Gazette-May 18, 1977).

It was at the end of August of 1972 that the Olympics 1972 400mh round one heats (five sets) were held. The rule was for the first leading three athlete in each heat (altogether 15 athletes), together with the next one fastest athlete to make it the 16 semi-finalists. Feelings about Akii-Bua’s performance were mixed, some skeptical. Akii won in heat 4, but his winning time of 50.35 seconds was the slowest winning time among the five heats. Akii-Bua probably simply relaxed himself during the run, being confident that he was through to the semi-finals. Winners in the other heats were Dieter Buttner (West Germany) in Heat One in 49.78 seconds; Dave Hemery (Great Britain) in Heat Two in 49.72 seconds; Christian Rudolph (East Germany) in Heat Three in 50 seconds; and Yevgeny Gavrilenko (Soviet Union) in Heat Five in 49.73 seconds.

In the first of two semi-finals, Akii-Bua not only ran significantly faster than he had done in the first round but proved that he was a top contender for the gold medal. Media communications in Uganda and the rest of the world were far less developed in the 1970’s than those of this Internet and mobile phone age. Most Ugandans, relying on radio and piecemeal newspaper and television networks were in the dark about the impressive progress of Akii. Importantly, Semi-Final Round One witnessed Akii-Bua win in 49.25 seconds (his next best personal performance in comparison with his African record of 49.00 seconds), and decisively trouncing gold-medal hopes Ralph Mann (49.53 seconds) the American national champion and record holder and Dave Hemery (49.66 seconds) the Olympic champion and world-record holder. It was the first time that Akii had faced this quality of competition; until then he had not achieved the chance to race with those two big names that would likely be his biggest nemeses at the Olympics. Was Semi-Finals Heat One a preview of what the finals would be? Both Ralph Mann and Akii-Bua had in this semi-final been assigned to unfavorable Lanes One and Two respectively; while Hemery was assigned to advantageous Lane 5 (which same lane he was assigned to in all three rounds–the Heats, the Semi-Final, and the Final)!

It is significant that while Akii’s heat in Round One had been the slowest among the five, Akii had not only clocked the best time in the semi-finals, but had also been the only one that had won in both qualifying heats. The fourth placed in this semi-final was Rainer Schubert of West Germany (49.80 seconds). The first four in each semi-final heat would advance to the final. Competitors in Semi-Finals Heat Two were quite fast, but not as impressive as the first one. Two First-Round winners, Christian Rudolph and Dieter Buttner, did not finish. The winners, to advance to the finals, were Jim Seymour (USA, 49.33 seconds), Gavrilenko (Soviet Union, 49.34 seconds), Yury Zorin (Soviet Union, 49.60 seconds), and Tziortzis (Greece, 50.06 seconds).

The finals of the Olympic intermediate hurdles were set for September 2, 1972 a date only days before what would become known as the Munich Massacre executed on the Israeli team by “Black September” militants on September 5, 1972. Akii-Bua, a 6′ 2″, 175 pound, athletically built, dark and smooth complexioned youth sporting a bright red Uganda uniform with the inscription number “911” beamed and singularly stood out amongst his European-descended competition. Also, whether by design or shear bad luck of drawing, Akii was in all three rounds assigned to either inner-Lanes One or Two—the sharpest and most difficult lanes to navigate around. For the finals (after being assigned Lane Two in both the preliminary round and the semi-finals), Akii was assigned Lane One, of all lanes! Maybe his previous inner-lane assignments gave Akii the short-term experience and practice of knowing how to navigate through to a gold medal win, albeit being placed in unfavorable Lane One. Nowadays, it is customary to allow the winners in the preliminary rounds to decide to which lanes they will be assigned in the forthcoming rounds. Logically, the winners in each round choose the middle lanes, while the runners-up and ones who ran slower end up having to chose from the “disadvantageous” outermost and inner lanes!

The prelude to the 400mh finals is one of the most colorful in Olympic history, as fourth-positioned USA marathoning finalist at the same Olympics Kenny Moore (in “Sports Illustrated”: ‘A Play of Light’, November 20, 1972) reminds us: “…Akii-Bua was amazing. As…other finalists in the…hurdles stared blankly…at Munich’s dried-blood-red track, grimly adjusting their blocks and minds for the coming ordeal, Akii danced in his lane, waving and grinning at friends in the crowd.”

Nevertheless, Akii-Bua was not totally unnerved. He was sleepless, the night before the finals, “…haunted by visions of Hemery winning” (David Corn in “Notes on a Scandal: John Akii-Bua and his Journey from Munich Gold to tragedy” in “The Guardian,” August 6, 2008).

The day arrived! The finals witnessed Hemery, a perfectionist at timing and jumping the hurdles take the lead at a faster pace in the first 200 meters than had been the case when he won gold in world-record time in the previous Olympics held in Mexico City. Most of the cameras were concentrated on Hemery. But long-legged Akii was steadily catching up and overtaking the competition that he could clearly see in front of him. It became apparent that Akii was in the lead soon after the final turn and that Hemery was slowing down. Hemery looked helplessly to his left as Akii, three lanes down powered through. Akii still felt strong and, the finishing line was close, and Akii was confident that the gold would be his! Even after hitting the last hurdle, Akii closed onto the finishing line in what was then regarded as an astonishing new world record 47.82 seconds!

Not until American Angelo Taylor, 24 years later in the Olympics of 1996 held in Atlanta (Georgia) would a 400 meter-hurdler running in the innermost lane win gold. While Taylor won in 47.50 seconds, a displacement of Akii’s world best of 47.82s gold medal win in the inner lane, his photofinish race required many minutes to pass before the ultimate winner between he and Saudi Arabian Hadj Soua’an Al-Somaily (47.53s) in lane 4 was decided. This happened on 27th September, 2000.

“Akii-Bua fascinated the fans by show-boating after his victory. He leaped over imaginary hurdles, went into dances, and waved and grinned at admirers” (William Grimsley-“In Pole Vaulting, Rowing U.S. Handed Big Olympics Setback” Tuscaloosa News, September 3, 1972). Akii-Bua’s victory, let alone attendance at the Olympics in Munchen may not have happened. Many African nations, had threatened to massively walk out of the games in protest of the admission of white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Rhodesia became disqualified.

The outcome of the finals is further dramatically illustrated by Kenny Moore (“Sports Illustrated”: ‘A Play of Light’, November 20, 1972):

“…after he had won the race in world-record time…kept on going past the finish, barely slowing while his victims slumped and dry-heaved…. The organizing committee had not allowed time for victory laps but the crowd was on its feet, calling, and Akii heard. …bounding over a hurdle and then he floated down the backstretch, clearing each hurdle again, a crimson and black impala leaping joyfully over imaginary barriers where there were no real ones, creating one of the few moments of exultation in the Olympics. And after the Games had ended, on notes of violence and regret and disgust, it seemed that Akii-Bua most symbolized what they might have been. He seemed a man eminently worth knowing.”

Sam Wollaston in another “Guardian” article (August 11, 2008) “The Weekend’s TV,” writes that Akii “…on the night before his Olympic victory…drank a whole bottle of champagne, provided by his [British] coach [Malcolm Arnold]. To help him sleep.”

Malcolm Arnold, a secondary school teacher and part-time athletics coach left Bristol for Uganda in 1968 where he would head coach the Uganda track-and-field team for five years. After Akii’s successes, Arnold became a national coach in the United Kingdom and is credited with successes of such athletes as hurdler Colin Jackson. Partly because Akii’s background of deprivation and meager training facilities, Arnold now in his 70’s still considers Akii as his foremost trainee. Just before the race, Arnold had advised Akii to concentrate on running his race and going for the gold instead of worrying about the pace of the other competitors and the pace of first 200 meters.

Kenny Moore (in “Sports Illustrated”: ‘A Play of Light’, November 20, 1972), from an exchange while riding leisurely with Akii in Kampala the Uganda capital, describes him neatly:

“…he gave an impression of greater bulk than when seen running. His features are fine, almost delicate, and his complexion very smooth. His eyes are small, allowing his face to be dominated by perfect white teeth.”

The second All-Africa Games were held in January 7-18, 1973 in the Nigeria capital city of Lagos. Bill Koskei made it to the finals of the men’s 400m hurdles. Also in the final line-up was recently crowned Olympic gold medalist and world record holder and nemesis of Koskei, John Akii-Bua of Uganda who was expected to win. Akii-Bua won easily, but what is astonishing is that Akii-Bua won in a very fast time of 48.54s–at that time among the fastest time ever run in the hurdles’ race, and the second best time during that year and best time ever on African soil. Koskei grabbed the silver, running nearly a full two seconds (50.22s) behind Akii-Bua, and a photo-finish ahead of bronze medalist Silver Ayoo (50.25s) of Uganda. Akii-Bua would soon remark that although he was comfortably far ahead of the pack, as he approached the final bend of the race, a glimpse of the conspicuously military-adorned and revered Nigerian president General Yakubu Dan-Yumma Gowon high in the stands and watching and cheering, boosted him on to speed up.

Interestingly, later on July 25 1975, a coup d’etat lead by Brigadier Murtala Ramat Mohammed overthrew General Gowon as he attended an Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit being held in Kampala. Corruption, financial laxness and mismanagement, and the postponement of national elections were among the accusations leveled upon the Gowon regime.

During 1973, Akii maintained his position of world’s leading intermediate hurdler on the globe. His leading time was 48.49 seconds. Second in ranking in 1973 was American Jim Bolding (48.8s) who had been a student and outstanding All-American star at Oklahoma State University (1969-1972) and would turn out to be Akii’s main American competitor. Ralph Mann’s best time in 1973 (49.3 seconds) moved him down to third ranking in the world. William Koskei, with a time of 49.34s moved down to 7th ranked and this compared to the previous year when Koskei was ranked 6th.

The Akii-Bolding rivalry included Akii beating Bolding in a track meet held in the third week of June 1973; Bolding beating Akii at the end of June 1973 whereby he won in a photo-finish at an international meet in Sweden in a relatively mediocre time of 50 seconds; Akii losing to Bolding (49.0 seconds) at the end of July 1975; and Akii beating Bolding during the middle of August 1975.

Earlier on in early July 1975, Jim Bolding became ranked first in the world (48.55s, during a track meet in Paris). During the same year Alan Pascoe of Great Britain attained 48.59 seconds and achieved the number-two ranking. Akii’s best time of 48.67 seconds during this year shifted him down to third-ranked in the world.

Interestingly, probably because of inadequate training and/or participation, possibly injury, Akii was not ranked among the world’s top-10 during 1974. This year, the Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch in New Zealand would have been Akii’s best chance at a Commonwealth Games gold medal. However, at a track meet in the first week of July 1974, Jim Bolding set an American record of 48.10s and beat Akii into third place. Just as he would be in the following year, Jim Bolding became ranked number one in the world. In retrospect, as an injured newcomer to the intermediate hurdles Akii-Bua had finished fourth at the finals behind (respectively) John Sherwood (England), William Koskei (Uganda), and Charles Kipkemboi Yego (Kenya) at the British Commonwealth Games that were held in Edinburgh in Scotland in 1970.

In late June 1975, at an international track meet in Helsinki in Finland, Jim Bolding after powerfully leading during the first 300 meters, was comfortably beaten by Akii-Bua. However, the top winner, at these “World Games,” held in Helsinki was Alan Pascoe of Great Britain.

At a track meet held in Stuttgart in Germany in late 1975, Akii won by far in an impressive time of 48.72 seconds, Jim Bolding was second in about a second away in 49.60 seconds.

Akii-Bua in early June 1976 became the main highlight star at a German international meet held in Dusseldorf when he won in both the 400-flat and the 400mh. The competition was overwhelmingly of German nationals, but it was importantly regarded as an Olympics-1976 Games’ qualifier. Akii-Bua’s 400mh win in 48.58 seconds was his personal best for the year. An excellent time, it would still lag behind into 5th best for the year behind the recordings for Edwin Moses (USA), Quentin Wheeler and Tom Andrews (USA, 48.55s), and Jim Bolding (USA, 48.57s). The more frequent sub-49-second runs spelled more competition in the intermediate hurdles!

Akii-Bua’s win in the 400 meters-flat final at the Dusseldorf meet was in a personal best time of 45.82 seconds. Akii beat upcoming Olympic relay bronze-medalist German Franz-Peter Hofmeister (46.39s) into second place, and European record-holder and Olympic finalist Karl Honz (West Germany) fading into third place. Only a couple of months before Montreal 1976, this was Akii’s most profound pre-Olympic display of evidence that he was very much in contention for another Olympic medal. Akii had trained in the city Dortmund in preparation for the Olympic Games.

In the third week of June 1976, Akii-Bua tore a thigh (left hamstring) muscle that could have reduced his chances of a medal at the 1976 Olympics at Montreal. Additionally and unfortunately, medal hopes Jim Bolding and Ralph Mann failed to secure one of the three berths on the USA team for the Olympics. They were beaten into 4th and 6th place, respectively. Worse still for Akii-Bua, Uganda boycotted the Olympics held in Montreal. American Olympic qualifiers at the USA trials were 20 year-old Edwin Moses (48.30 seconds) a physics-industrial engineering student at renowned Morehouse College in Atlanta (Georgia), 21 year-old Quentin David Wheeler (San Diego State University), and 22 year-old Mike Shine of Pennsylvania State University.

At the Olympic Games, unheralded Mike Shine surprisingly won a silver medal doing it lane 1..the same disadvantageous lane placing that Akii-Bua contended with in the previous Olympics! His personal best time of 48.69s placed him 6th in the world in 1976. It was the first and last time that Mike Shine would shine in this top ten list. Quentin Wheeler managed a 4th place finish behind Soviet Yevgeny Gavrilenko who was a finalist at the previous Olympics. The winner Edwin Moses, running in lane 4, had gradually switched from competing in the 110 meter-hurdles and the 400m-flat over just the previous six months of 1976. He won, on 25 July 1976, in a new world record of 47.63s! The Olympics had been Moses’ first international meet! Akii-Bua’s world record was gone!

Edwin Moses remains the greatest hurdler of all time. His accolades (apart from his numerous sports awards and designations) include remaining unbeaten at the intermediate hurdles for nearly 10 years, setting his own world record four times (his best time being 47.03s in 1983), consecutively winning 122 races (including 107 consecutive finals), winning 2 Olympic gold medals, and being active in international competition for more than 15 years and into his mid-thirties! Unfortunately, Moses was never to race with Akii-Bua. The clash between the two at the 1976 Olympics had been eagerly anticipated, but it was never to happen!

Akii-Bua was hardly active competitively in 1977. Governmental devotion of financial resources to supporting sports had dwindled in the Uganda military regime of Idi Amin that progressively devoted more resources to arms and ammunition and struggled with its image and potential liberators abroad. Rumors about the condition of Akii-Bua were rife. In a Nairobi article of 3rd March 1977 in ‘The Age’ entitled ‘Akii-Bua Prison Claim ‘Rubbish,'” Mrs. Joyce Akii-Bua flatly denies that her husband was arrested in Kampala, refuting the Kenyan “Daily Nation” that Akii had been locked up in Makindye Maximum Security Prison; she tells reporters: “These reports are complete rubbish. I don’t know where they come from. My husband is fine and there is nothing to worry about.”

The world, during these volatile years in Uganda, only saw a glimpse of Akii-Bua. At the All-Africa Games held in Algiers in Algeria, from 13th-28th July in 1978, Akii was beaten in the 400mh finals by Kenya’s Daniel Kimaiyo (49.48s), Akii ran in second (49.55s), and Peter Rwamuhanda (50.18s) of Uganda won the bronze medal. All three medallists, in the same event at the previous Africa Games Lagos 1973), had also been from the east African countries Kenya and Uganda (including Akii with his gold medal win)! These personals-best for Kimaiyo and Akii-Bua placed them as 7th and 10th in the world respectively. That top-10 ranking would be the first and last for Kimaiyo and the last for Akii-Bua. Soon after, at the British Empire Commonwealth Games held in Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) from August 3-12, 1978, Daniel Kimaiyo not only won the 400mh gold (in 49.48s), but also co-anchored with Bill Koskei, Washington Njiri, and Joel Ngetich to win the 4 x 400 meters relay gold. Kimaiyo notably also won the 400mh East and Central African Championships title, the following year 1979…the venue was Mombasa, Kenya. These Championships were not held in 1978.

In 1979, armed liberators that included a heavy contingent of Tanzania national forces alongside Ugandan rebels and liberators marched into Uganda and overthrew Amin after his 8-year reign. Scores of people were killed during the “Liberation war”–the process of the ouster of Amin by Tanzania armed forces and Ugandan exiles. In the 1970’s Akii-Bua had sporadically been rumored to be in danger, mainly because he was of the same Lango ethnic group that Milton Obote who had been ousted in the 1971 coup d’etat engineered by General Amin’s military loyalists. A bulk of Uganda exiles (many residing in Tanzania) as well as those persecuted in Uganda were Langi. But over the years Akii possibly partly confident of his universal prominence in Uganda, impressed by the several accolades bestowed on him by Idi Amin himself (including promotions in the national police force, and a major road in Kampala named after him), and preferring to stay put in Uganda with his immediate and extended family did not exhibit unusual fear for his safety.

If Akii’s athletics career was negatively affected by the regime of Amin, it was no more negatively impacted than the careers of many other Ugandan athletes–mainly because of diminishing allocation of resources to sports and funding for international tournaments. Amin, given Akii’s international status, would have had a lot lose in the eyes of the world if he harmed Akii; and he did have a lot to gain by courting and making Akii feel comfortable at home. Still, Akii-Bua was sometimes hindered from leaving Uganda, more so as the regime of Amin became progressively notorious on the world scene.

From 1970 to 1978, it is only in 1974 and 1977 that Akii-Bua is not listed as among the top-10 fastest 400mh runners in the world. The maintaining of longevity by an athlete, is a remarkable feat, more so in such heavily demanding races as the 400mh. Remaining a top world athlete involves maintaining health, strength and form; maintaining discipline; and minimizing injury. Akii still had some impressive sponsorship opportunities to train and run internationally, such as when he trained in Germany prior to the Olympics of both 1976 and 1980.

This is under ‘People in Sports: Wire Service Reports’ titled “Akii-Bua Safe?” in the “Eugene Register Guard” of 28th May 1979:

“..[Akii-Bua]…had not been heard from for almost a year. At one point there was speculation that he had been killed during Uganda’s internal strife, but it has been learned that he was jailed last month in Nairobi, Kenya, along with 500 other Ugandan refugees and political prisoners who fled the now-deposed regime of Idi Amin. The bizarre events surrounding Akii-Bua’s long periods of silence and seclusion in his terror-ridden country and his weeks of detention in Kenya still are vague and sometimes contradictory. …The family is scheduled to be flown out of Kenya with the assistance of the West German Embassy and Puma, the German sports-shoe company. Last Wednesday, [wife] Joyce Akii-Bua phoned Joe Dittrich…the director…of Puma…that her husband had been set free…and had returned alone to Uganda to check on other members of his family.”

Undoubtedly, Akii always put his family first, even far ahead of his athletics’ endeavors and glory! Fleeing Uganda for Kenya, as Amin’s power crumbled. He sent his pregnant wife plus their three children (8 year-old Tony, 5 year-old Tonia, 21 month-old Denise) ahead to a town near the Uganda-Kenya border. Akii driving his Peugeot at top speed fled Kampala with his nephew, and was briefly pursued by policemen; luckily, they did not shoot. The ordeal involved Joyce birthing a premature baby who died a day later. The parents did not even have the money to bury their child. Hundreds of Ugandan refugees, of which Akii was one, were rounded up in Kenya and detained in a camp. It was after being released a month later that Akii briefly returned to Kampala. His like many vacated homes, had been ransacked! It was from here that he moved close to Nuremberg where he would prepare for the forthcoming Olympics, and also be a promoter for Puma for three or 4 years. Much of this is recounted in Fred Hauptfuhrer’s “Olympic Champ John Akii-Bua Won No Medals, Only a New Life, Racing to Escape Amin’s Uganda,” (10th December 1979) in “People” Magazine.

The ‘Lawrence Journal-World’ of 20th June 1979 in “Akii-Bua in Germany With Eye on Training,” and the ‘Schenectady Gazette’ of 21 June 1979 in “Akii-Bua Mulling Olympic ‘Offers'” reports Akii-Bua as having recently joined his wife and three children in the West Germany town Herzogenaurach near Nuremberg, and was mulling over offers to train for the forthcoming Olympics in Moscow. Akii’s fleeing Uganda in face of the volatile turmoil surrounding the ouster of Amin coincided with his need to be in a stable situation so as to train for the Olympic Games. Further, Amin’s soldiers had persecuted many from Akii’s ethnic group (the Langi), and a sizeable chunk of exiles and liberators were Langi. Because Akii-Bua refused to flee Uganda and hang on as a national star despite the alleged ravishes of the Amin regime and the many opportunities that were open to Akii to flee Uganda and denounce the Amin regime, Akii was regarded by many of the Langi (including members of his own family) as a staunch supporter and stooge of the Amin regime. Hence, paradoxically, during the overthrow of Amin, Akii’s life may have been in danger at the hands of his own people infuriated at his “running for Amin,” over the years!

Akii-Bua’s blood brother James Ocen-Bua who was in the Uganda Army was killed at the hands of Idi Amin forces (Denis H.Obua: “John Alii-Bua is a Forgotten Sports Hero” in “The Observer,” 28th March 2010)

The summer Olympics of 1980 in Moscow began with the opening ceremony spearheaded by Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev on July 20 1980. They would run until August 3rd. Akii-Bua had trained in Germany a few months prior to the Olympics, and despite his relatively advanced age of 30 (he was one of a couple of 400mh competitors in the 30’s), he was still determined to make it at least up to the finals. That many countries, including Germany, United States and Kenya boycotted the Games in protest of the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan reduced the competition and the validity of the Games. However, the absence of top world hurdlers such as Edwin Moses and Harald Schmid (West Germany)–the top two intermediate hurdles runners in 1980, bolstered Akii’s chances at a commendable performance at the Games.

Just days before his participation in Moscow, a confident Akii soon after competing in a track meet in Stockholm in Sweden tells reporters, “I know I’ll be in the finals. I am completely serious. ..Look at me. ..Do you see an extra pound place?..Seriously..I’m getting to be in real good shape. …The question is only technique…[and] the atmosphere of competition..[and] the right concentration, the right frame of mind to win” (‘Tuscaloosa News’ – 20th July 1980: “Akii-Bua Hopes Attention is On Him This Time”).

Akii was scheduled to run in the first heat (of three heats) of Round One on July 24th, in Lenin Stadium. He was placed in lane 4, a relatively favorable lane. The top four finishers of each heat, plus four with the next best times would move on to the semi-finals. Akii’s performance was not encouraging. He was placed 5th overall in 50.87s, and faced the prospect of being eliminated. In Heat Two, two hurdlers did not finish. Heat Three determined that Akii, based on timing, would be one of the four additional runners to advance to the semi-finals that would be held the next day on July 25th. The top three finishers in each of the semi-final heats, in addition to two with the next best times would advance to the finals.

Akii was placed in heat two in the outermost, generally unfavorable lane 8. Akii-Bua finished in 51.10s–a time considerably slower than that of the preliminary heats. Akii, the only semi-finalist in his 30’s, finished 7th. On July 26, the finals witnessed Volker Beck (running in lane 8) win gold in 48.70s, followed by Vasily Arkhipenko (Soviet Union) in lane 2 in 48.86 seconds, followed by Gary Oakes (Great Britain) in lane 1 finishing in 49.11 seconds. All three medallists were ranked among the world’s top ten 400m hurdlers in 1980.

Akii’s next task was the 4 x 400 meters-relay. Also on the Uganda string were Silver Ayoo, Charles Dramiga, and Pius Olowo. Just one round of three heats would determine the selection to the finals. The top two finishers of each round plus two relay teams with the next best times would move on to the finals. Uganda’s performance was mediocre. On July 31st, Uganda’s 5th place in heat two, in the time 3 min 7 seconds would not carry Uganda through to the finals. This spelt the end of Akii-Bua’s illustrious competitive career in athletics. As a student at University of New Mexico, Charles Dramiga was ranked as one of the best quarter-milers in on the American college scene. Dramiga is a former American collegiate record holder of the 600 meters. As a chiropractor, Dr. Charles Ole Dramiga has been in the Dallas (Texas) area for many years. The Soviet Union won the 4 x 400 meters relay (3:01.1), followed by East Germany (3:01.3), and Italy (3:04.3) won the bronze medal.

In Moscow, only welterweight boxer John Mugabi won the lone medal for Uganda, a silver. As a professional, because of his ferociousness, strength and knock-out speed, Mugabi would become nicknamed “the beast”; and he would become WBC world junior middleweight champion on 7th July 1989 after knocking out Frenchman Rene Jacquot.

Akii-Bua was to become Uganda’s track and field coach. He died in late June of 1997, after being admitted to Kampala’s Mulago Hospital with abdominal pains that had afflicted him for a considerable time, possibly stomach cancer. Akii was a widower when he died, and was survived by his 11 children. John Akii-Bua’s children include Denise Akii-Bua [Harris] (a journalist, broadcaster, and political activist), Maureen Akii-Bua (a model), and Janet Akii-Bua (a fine artist).

At the time of his death Akii-Bua was a Senior Superintendent, the Interim Assistant Commissioner of Police in Charge of Welfare and Community Affairs. A state funeral in Abako County in northern Uganda where he grew up, honored the glorious John Akii-Bua. Among the structures that honor Akii is the Akii-Bua Memorial Stadium and Akii-Bua Memorial Secondary School in Lira. On 10th August 2008, a 90-minute documentary, created with the help of Akii’s notes furnished to his British coach Malcolm Arnold, was released by the Dan Gordon under the British Broadcasting corporation (BBC). The piece, “The John Akii Bua Story: An African Tragedy,” involves a cast of mostly Ugandans, and it has garnered excellent positive reviews.

Jonathan Musere

William Koskei: Uganda and Kenya’s 400 Meters’ Hurdles Champion

September 18, 2009

One of Africa’s finest track competitors at the short (400-meter) hurdles, first ran nationally and internationally for neighboring Uganda before migrating eastward back home to his native Kenya. He would thereafter continue competing in the 400m hurdles as well as be part of Kenya’s 4 x 400 meters’ relay team during the 1970’s. Born on December 28 in 1947, in western Kenya, William “Bill” Koskei, is still remembered as one of the greatest of Uganda’s, Kenya’s, and altogether Africa’s 400-meters hurdlers. Slender Koskei stood at a relatively tall 6’0″. It was at the East and Central African Championships (an annual event primarily involving track and field stars from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia) that William Koskei first displayed international prominence. In 1969, these regional championships were held in the Uganda capital Kampala. Uganda runner Koskei won the 400 meter-hurdles gold with a time of 51.4 seconds. In 1972, the same Championships held in the Tanzania capital Dar-es-Salaam, Koskei this time running for his native Kenya, again won in the 400 meter-hurdles with a time of 50.7 seconds. By this time, Somalia and Ethiopia had enlisted their athletes in the championships. In 1977, the same championships held in Somalia capital Mogadishu, William Koskei now nearly 30 years of age, again won the gold in the 400m hurdles, after hitting the tape in 50.6 seconds. Koskei proved that he had maintained stability in his career as an athlete. Charles Kipkemboi Yego had won in the same event in the East and Central African Championships in the venue of the Kenya capital Nairobi in 1970, winning in a time of 50 seconds. John Akii-Bua of Uganda had won in the 110 meter-hurdles finals at the same Championships held in Kampala in 1969. With the influence of the Uganda national track coach Malcolm Arnold from the United Kingdom, Akii-Bua became convinced that he would reap more rewards as a 400-meter hurdler. It is in his formerly adopted country of Uganda, that William Koskei is remembered for his most prestigious individual international stint: the silver medal he won in the 400m hurdles at the British Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh in Scotland from July 16 to 25 in 1970. Running for Uganda, Koskei won in the third heat of the first round, in a time of 51.37 seconds. Next came the semi-finals. Koskei comfortably won in 51.39 seconds, Kenya’s Charles Kipkemboi Yego coming in second in this semi-final in 51.73 seconds. In the finals, John Sherwood of England won in 50.03 seconds, Koskei came in second in 50.15 seconds, Kenyan Charles Kipkemboi Yego came in third in 50.19. Upcoming Ugandan superstar and future golden Olympian John Akii-Bua struggled with a back strain and hernia injury, was trailing last at the final 100 meters, but still raced in fast to come in fourth in 51.14 seconds. In 1970, Bill Koskei of Uganda became ranked 7th among men 400-meter hurdles runners in the All-Time World Rankings behind hurdlers from rank 1-7 respectively: Jean-Claude Nallet (France), Ralph Mann (USA), Wayne Collett (USA), Ari Salin (Finland), John Sherwood (Great Britain), and Charles Kipkemboi Yego (Kenya). 1970 would be the only year that Koskei would be ranked among the top ten in the world among the All-Time World Rankings. However, “Track and Field New” ranked Kenya’s Koskei as 10th in the world in 1973, and 9th in 1974. The performance of Commonwealth Games’ silver medalist William Koskei, at the summer Olympics held in Munich in West Germany from August 26, 1972 to September 11, 1972, was very much looked forward to. Although not ranked among the World’s top ten 400m hurdlers in 1972 or even 1972, Koskei was still regarded as an Olympic medal hope. Koskei, together with John Akii-Bua of Uganda reigned as Africa’s top hurdlers. The August 28, 1972 issue of “Sports Illustrated” predictably listed that American Ralph Mann would win Olympic gold, that Bill Koskei would come in second, and that John Akii-Bua of Uganda would win the bronze medal. The Australian Open Track & Field Championships of 1971-72 took place from March 22-26 in 1972 in Perry Lakes Stadium, Perth, Western Australia. In the second round of the 400m hurdles, on March 25, Bill Koskei took a photo-finishing second place behind Gary Knoke of New South Wales, Australia, in a relatively slow 52.2 seconds. The finals involved much more speed. Gary Knoke won in 49.3 seconds, Bill Koskei came in second in 49.4 seconds, and Bruce Fields of the Victoria territory of Australia run in third in a time of 49.9 seconds. In July 1971 in Durham in North Carolina, Akii-Bua had won in the hurdles at the Africa vs.USA meet. Akii-Bua proved he was not a fluke by clearly beating African rival Koskei, alongside the rest of the contingent of Africans and Americans, and winning in an impressive personal best of 49.05 seconds. American and number 1 ranked champion Ralph Mann did not show up. He was competing in Europe. At the Olympic Games in 1972, William Koskei, though running in the favorable lane 4, was disappointingly eliminated in the first round. His fourth place finish in Heat 2, in a time of 50.58 seconds would not carry him onto the next round. It was virtually Koskei’s last chance at the Olympics, given that the next two Olympics, held in Montreal (1976) and Moscow (1980) were boycotted by Kenya and many other nations. It was in 1972 that Koskei was at his peak, the year he ran a personal best of 49 seconds. At the Olympics in 1972, Uganda’s John Akii-Bua would win in a world record of 47.82 seconds, becoming the first man ever to officially run the 400m hurdles in less than 48 seconds. Ralph Mann won silver by several yards away, and former Olympic champion David Hemery of Great Britain racing in a very close third. The second All-Africa Games were held in January 7-18, 1973 in the Nigeria capital city of Lagos. Bill Koskei made it to the finals of the men’s 400m hurdles. Also in the final line-up was recently crowned Olympic gold medalist and world record holder and nemesis of Koskei, John Akii-Bua of Uganda who was expected to win. Akii-Bua won easily, but what is astonishing is that Akii-Bua won in a very fast time of 48.54s–at that time among the fastest time ever run in the hurdles’ race, and certainly the best time ever on African soil. Koskei grabbed the silver, running nearly a full two seconds (50.22s) behind Akii-Bua, and a photo finish ahead of bronze medalist Silver Ayoo (50.25s) of Uganda. Akii-Bua would soon remark that although he was comfortably far ahead of the pack, as he approached the final bend of the race, a glimpse of the conspicuously military-adorned and revered Nigerian president General Yakubu Gowon high in the stands and watching and cheering, boosted him on to speed up. The next big international challenge would involve Koskei of Kenya at the British Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch in New Zealand from January 24 to February 2, 1974. In the end William Koskei won a medal at these Commonwealth Games, just as he had done four years earlier. Alan Pascoe of England won in 48.83 seconds, Bruce Field of Australia came in second in 49.32 seconds, and Koskei won the bronze as he came in a photo finishing third in 49.34 seconds. At these 1974 Commonwealth Games, the finals of the 4x400m relay had legendary Olympic gold medalist Charles Asati start off for Kenya, hand the baton to Francis Musyoki who would in turn hand it to Bill Koskei. Koskei passed the baton on to legendary relay Olympic medalist Julius Sang who bagged in the gold for the Kenya relay team with an overall finishing of 3 minutes 4.43 seconds. At the Victorian Championships held in 1975 in Olympic Park, in the 400m hurdles, Koskei lost to third place (50.8 seconds) in the Finals to Alan Pascoe (50.4 seconds) of England, Bruce Field (50.6 seconds) of Australia. Koskei’s performance in the 400m hurdles was declining. A few more international performances by Koskei, at the 400m hurdles, were internationally mediocre. The next British Commonwealth Games were held in 1978, Canada in the territory of Alberta, in the city Edmonton from August 3-12, 1978. Again Bill Koskei participated in Kenya’s gold medal win, and his co-relay Kenyan victors included Washington Njiri, Daniel Kimaiyo, and Joel Ngetich. The winning time in Edmonton was 3.03.54. Kenya had notable consecutively won in the 4x400m men’s relays over the 12 years, in three consecutive Commonwealth Games. It is notable that Africa’s most populous nation and home to many international-standard athletes boycotted the Games for political grievances over affiliated participants with affiliation to apartheid south Africa. Aging Koskei, this time in 1978, did not win any medal in the 400m hurdles, but his countryman Daniel Kimaiyo won gold for Kenya, the first gold for Kenya in the event. William Koskei would soon retire his spikes with some degree of satisfaction. He had dedicatedly ran for two nations and he would retire from competing with two British Commonwealth gold medals, one silver, and one bronze. William “Bill” Koskei will forever be stamped in history as a dedicated national champion who not only commendably represented two African nations, but one who triumphantly bagged gold, silver, and bronze medals at the British Commonwealth and also African Games, but one who was in the 1970’s ranked as one of the best 400m hurdlers in the world. Jonathan Musere