Posts Tagged ‘Jim Ryun’

Judith Ayaa: East and Central African Championships, the Commonwealth and Olympic Games, and the USA vs Pan Africa Meet

November 18, 2014

Judith Ayaa was born on July 15, 1952 in the sub-county Koch Goma in Nwoya District in Uganda. During an era when African women participation in athletics was in its prevalently nascent and amateur stages, young Ayaa became a resounding name amongst African women track stars. Ayaa became the first Ugandan woman to win a Commonwealth Games’ medal. The female Ugandan Commonwealth Games’ medallists who followed in her footsteps are three: Ruth Kyalisiima (Kyarisiima/ Kyalisima) in Brisbane in 1982 where she won the silver in the 400 meters-hurdles (57.10), gold-medallist Dorcus Inzikuru in the 3000 meters-steeplechase in Melbourne in 2006 whereby she established a Games’ record (9:19.51), and bronze-medallist Winnie Nanyondo who was third in the 800m (2:01.38) in Glasgow in 2012.


Judith Ayaa’s career on the track would be short-lived, though of significant fulfillment.

The record of Judith Ayaa in the East and Central African Athletic Championships is amazing. In 1968 (Dar-es-Salaam), Ayaa won gold in the 100 meters sprint, finishing in 11.5. The following year in mid-August 1969, Ayaa cemented and confirmed her formidability by in the same championships (Kampala) winning in the 100 meters (11.8), the 200 meters (25.0), and the 400m (53.6). Jane Chikambwe, considered an athletics legend in Zambia won silvers behind Ayaa in the 100m and 200m. Here in Kampala in 1969, Ayaa was part of the Uganda 4x100m relay team that won in 49.5. In the same year, based on her personal best time of 53.6, Judith Ayaa was ranked amongst the world’s top 10 female 400m runners.


In 1970 at the same ECA Championships (Nairobi), Judith Ayaa did not slip behind. The slim young woman with the “Mercedes-Benz” body again won in the 100m (11.8), the 200m (24.1), and the 400m (54.0s).


It was at the Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh in Scotland in 1970 that Judith Ayaa established herself as an international female athlete to be reckoned with. At these Games, Judith Ayaa notably competed in the 100m and the 400m. On July 17th, Ayaa was placed in the first of the five 100m preliminary heats. He performed reasonably well, finishing in second place, behind Jenny Lamy of Australia, in 11.92 seconds. But the semi-finals, the next day, were not as fruitful for Ayaa. She was placed in the second of the two semi-final heats, and was beaten into sixth place (11.93) and eliminated from advancing to the finals. The finals, later in the day, were won by Raelene Boyle of Australia, followed by legendary Alice Annum of Ghana, and then Marion Hoffman of Australia for the bronze medal.


There were much fewer competitors in the 400m so there would only be two rounds of competition. On July 22nd, Ayaa was placed in the second of two heats of the first round. Ayaa won in a relatively astounding time of 52.86 seconds, a new Uganda and Africa record. The finishing time by Ayaa ranked her as eleventh in the world in 1970. Alice Annum who had been scheduled to compete in the same round, did not start.

Ayaa advanced to the finals that would be contested the next day. But perhaps she had ran too fast instead of running while relaxed but enough to be amongst the top four of each round that would automatically qualify for the finals. Sandra Brown of Australia, was second, and a full second behind Ayaa. The other semi-final heat in which Marilyn Neufville won in 53.05, was of more relaxation and tactfulness.

The finals the next day witnessed diminutive but legendary 17 year-old Jamaican Marilyn Fay Neufville, winning in a world record of 51.02. Neufville won by an astounding more than two seconds ahead of silver medallist Sandra Brown (53.66) of Australia; she reduced the previous world record of 51.7 established (1969) by Colette Besson and Nicole Duclos both of France by nearly a second. Judith Ayaa, overtaken after slowing down near the end of the race, likely due to fatigue after her unnecessary exertion in the semi-finals, was third (53.77) in a photo-finish behind Sandra Brown and captured the bronze medal. The fatigue had likely cost her at least the silver medal; but the Commonwealth bronze would be one of Ayaa’s most acclaimed international possessions!


Marilyn Neufville’s superb career would be short-lived because of physical injuries and inconsequential surgery. At the 1974 Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch in New Zealand Neufville was 6th in the finals of the 400m. And at the Olympic Games of 1976 held in Montreal in Canada, she participated in the first round of the 400m and qualified for the next round, but she did not move forward into the next round because of injuries.


The next major event for Ayaa would be from July 16-17, 1971 at he Wallace Wade Stadium at Duke University in Durham in North Carolina. It was the USA versus Africa and the Rest of the World Meet (sometimes referred  to as the USA-Pan African Track-and-Field Meet). The event that attracted a high capacity crowd of a total of 52000 spectators was of a unified African team together with other nations (fourteen nations altogether) versus the USA team. Perhaps the main attraction was 1500m Olympic gold-medallist Kipchoge Keino who was revered and renowned for his track rivalry with American middle-distance legend and 1500m world-record (3:33.1)
holder Jim Ryun. Here at Duke, Keino intended to break this world record.


Other internationally acclaimed runners in the competition included Kenyan Amos Biwott (steeplechase Olympic champion), and long-distance Tunisian legend Mohammed Gammoudi. Ugandan hurdler John Akii-Bua of Uganda who was hardly known internationally, was also there to compete.


Judith Ayaa won the gold medal at these USA-Pan Africa Games in 54.69. Second was Gwendolyn Norman (USA) of Sports International in 55.42, third was Jarvis Scott (USA) of Los Angeles Mercurettes in 56. 0, and fourth was Titi Adeleke (Nigeria) in 59.52. John Akii-Bua won in the intermediate hurdles, establishing an Africa record (49.0) that would be the world’s best time for 1971. Smooth-sailing “flying policeman” Akii  became signified as a contender for the forthcoming Olympics in 1972 in Munich. Simultaneously, Ayaa  gained international acclaim though not to the level of Akii. Kip Keino failed to break the world record in the 1500m, but he clearly led and finished in quite an excellent 3:34.7.


Other notable competitors at the track and field meet included Americans Rodney Milburn and Ron Draper (high hurdles), Kenyans Robert Ouko (800m) and Benjamin Jipcho (steeplechase); Steve Prefontaine (USA) and Miruts Yifter (Ethiopia) in the 5000m, and John Smith (USA) in the 400m.


Still in 1971, at the East and Central African Championships held in Lusaka in Zambia, Ayaa was the winner in the 400m (54.7). She was also part of the Uganda gold medal winning teams in the relays: 4x100m (48.7) and 4x400m (3:50.5).

The next major challenge for Ayaa, the Olympic Games of 1972 held in Munich in Germany would prove to be interesting. In the first round, Ayaa in lane two came in fourth (52.85s) thereby qualifying for the quarter-finals. In the quarter finals, Judith Ayaa was drawn in lane 7 in her heat two of four heats. The first four finishers of each heat would move on to the semi-final. Ayaa comfortably finished third and established a Uganda and Africa record of 52.68. The Uganda record, Ayaa’s personal best, would stand for more than three decades. Of note, in these quarter-finals, Ayaa beat 26 year-old Colette Besson of France the diminutive surprise winner in the same event at the previous (1968) Olympics in Mexico City. Besson was in lane 3 and her 5th place finish disqualified her from advancing to the next round.

Ayaa moved on to the Olympics’ semi-finals. She was in lane 2, and finished in 52.91 seconds, a 7th place finish. Ayaa had put up quite a commendable performance, but the international competition was formidable, and Ayaa was eliminated in what would be her first and last Olympics competition. The eighth competitor, Christel Frese of West Germany, fell during the race and did not finish.


In 1972, Ayaa became a 4-time gold medallist in the 400m at the East and Central African Championships. This time, in Dar-es-Salaam, Ayaa’s winning time was 55.7. She was part of the Uganda team that won the gold medal in the 4x100m (48.7).


After 1972, Ayaa’s performance record would become lackluster. She got married and started having children in close succession, and neglected sports. The tumultuous regime of Amin made the situation worse. Athletes were far less financially compensated for their toil and injuries, than they have increasingly been in the recent decades. Ayaa’s demise was far from glamorous; it was disheartening. At some point later in her life, while looking after her two young children, Ayaa struggled, and sometimes begged on the streets of Kampala. She would crush stones for a living. Akii-Bua, also a national team-mate with Ayaa at the Olympics in 1972, would be instrumental to the drawing attention to and the intervening in the plight of Ayaa. She was located and a European benefactor helped with expenses. Unfortunately, in 2002 Ayaa would die young at 48 or 49, at Mulago Hospital in Kampala. Ironically, Akii-Bua who was also then not faring well, had died at about the same age of death as Ayaa, earlier in 1997 at the same hospital.


Ayaa’s reign on the women’s track was short but is superb and enduring. Trophies and national and regional competitions in northern Uganda have become commemorated in the name Judith Ayaa.


Jonathan Musere

Vitus Ashaba: Olympic Performance of Uganda’s Middle-Distance Champion and Steeplechaser

July 3, 2014

In the late August of 1972, Uganda middle-distance champion and steeplechaser Vitus Ashaba aged 29, flew to Munich with the crop of Ugandan athletes and boxers to represent the nation at the Olympics in Germany. Also registered to compete in both the 1500 meters and the 3000 meters steeplechase were legendary Kenyan Hezekiah Kipchoge Keino, and the then unheralded future Tanzanian legend Filbert Bayi Sanka. One of the most anticipated Olympic 1500m duels would be that between “Kip” Keino and America’s greatest high school and national middle-distance runner James “Jim” Ryun who held the world-record.

Four years earlier at the Olympics in high-altitude and -heat Mexico City, a somewhat sickly and tired but not intimidated Keino, had against doctor’s advice persevered and used team tactics with training-partner Benjamin Wabura Jipcho to initially tire fellow competitors and then finally run away to win the 1500m gold in Olympic record time (3:34.91). It became too late for eventual silver-medallist Ryun (3:37.89) to catch up, and at the finishing line he trailed 20 meters behind Keino.

A 50th anniversary milestone was recently celebrated, as Jim Ryun reflected on the 3:58.3 national high school record in the mile that he established on May 15th 1965, at the Kansas State High School Meet at Wichita State University’s Cessna Stadium. It was also a new Kansas State record. Further, the 3:58.3 still stands as the record in a mile-race that included only high school students. Earlier on in 1964 Ryun, as a junior, still at East High School, had become the first national high school student to break the 4-minute barrier–3:59. And even more, in San Diego at the American open championships in early June 1965, 18 year-old Ryun still in high school, established a new American record (3:55.3) as he shocked the world by holding off New Zealand legend and triple Olympic gold-medallist Peter Snell. As a national high-school record, the 3:55.3 would stand for nearly four decades until Virginian Alan Webb’s 3:53.43 on May 27th 2001 at the Oregon Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. Ryun started taking competitive athletics seriously only a couple of years before he started establishing the many middle-distance records that would include world records established in 1967 in the 1500m (3:33.1; Compton-Los Angeles) and the mile (3:51:1; Bakersfield, CA). Ryun as a youngster had been rejected by youth basketball, baseball, and even track teams. But devout Ryun had the faith in church and God, and humbly prayed for fruition in life. Jim Ryun’s shoulders were broad and bony, his knees were long and bony, all on a 6’2″ lanky 165 lb frame. Perhaps his biggest drawback was his vulnerability to bouts of sickness and physical injuries. At the 1968 Olympics when 21 year-old Ryun lost to 28 year-old Kip Keino, he had recently suffered a mild bout of mononucleosis that had placed a question mark on whether he would compete in Mexico City.

The relatively lanky Ugandan Vitus Ashaba (5’8″, 130Ib) was placed to run the Olympics 3000 meters-steeplechase in Heat One of four preliminary heats of the first round on September 1st 1972. This first round also included both Africans 32 year-old Kip Keino and 19 year-old Filbert Bayi who would also compete in the 1500m. Tapio Kantanen of Finland, aged 23, won (8:24.8) in a new Olympic record. Keino finishing second (8:27.6), together with 24 year-old Takaharu Koyama of Japan (8:29.8), also qualified for the next round which would be the finals. But though Bayi who finished ninth (8:41.4) and Ashaba who finished tenth (8:45.0) would not move on to the finals, both times were Tanzania and Uganda national records. And the 8:45.0 would forever be Ashaba’s personal best. It would further be intriguing that in the fourth heat on the same day, Kenya’s Amos Biwott, who had won the Olympic gold four years earlier in Mexico City, would win and reduce the Olympic record to 8:23.73 within a couple of hours. On September 7th, Kipchoge Keino, running in an event he had rarely competed in, would surprisingly win the Olympic gold in the steeplechase in a new Olympic record (8:23.64). This was his second Olympic gold simultaneous with Olympic records! Kipchoge had initially planned to compete in both the 1500m and 5000m, but the Olympic schedule of 1972 would have made that very difficult. Also, only 32 year-old Julio Faustino Quevedo Elias of Guatemala, at only a couple of months older than Keino was older than him amongst the male steeplechase competitors of  the Munich Olympics. Filbert Bayi Sanka, who would beat Keino in the 1500m at the All-Africa Games held in Lagos in January 1973, was the youngest among the 1972 Olympic steeplechasers. Second in the finals was legendary Kenyan Ben Jipcho (8:24.62), and the bronze medallist was Finn Tapio Kantanen (8:24.66).

Ashaba hoped for better results in the 1500m. Here, there would be a first round of heats on September 8th, the qualified would move on to the two semi-final heats held on September 9th; and the finals would be on September 10th. The First Round consisted of seven heats whereby the first finishers in each heat, together with the next two overall fastest would move on to the semi-finals. Ashaba was placed in Heat Four which included Keino and Ryun. This would turn out to be the fastest heat among the preliminary rounds. The race began, and as typically, Ryun bided his time to wait for an outburst near the end of the race.  But it was not to be. About a lap before the end of the race, and accident between Ashaba, Ryun and Ghanaian William “Billy” Fordjour who were running in close proximity happened (Associated Press 1972). Ashaba’s heal was clipped by Ryun who ended up colliding and falling with the Ghanaian. Ashaba got away, though slowed down. It is not clear who caused the accident, but it seems to have been an accidental collision among runners in very close proximity. Many blame Ryun for the accident. Ryun blamed Ashaba. It was too late for Ryun to catch up in such a short race.

Keino won (3:39.97), and alongside Rod Dixon of New Zealand (3:40.03), Gunnar Ekman of Sweden (3:40.40), Klaus-Peter Justus of East Germany (3:40.44), and Gianni Del Buono of Sweden (3:40.78) were the semi-finalists of Heat Four. Ashaba was 8th, but still managed to establish his personal best and new Uganda national record–3:45.2.  Ryun finished 9th (3:51.5), and Fordjour last (4:08:2). Keino consoled his arch-nemesis. Ryun blamed Ashaba for the accident, and appealed for reinstatement. His appeal did not achieve fruition, and that ended Ryun’s run at the Olympics. As for Vitus Ashaba, the international sports world would mostly remember him for the accident with Jim Ryun.

Keino would move on to the semi-final round which included three heats on September 9th. He won in the second heat. Heat One had been won by fellow-countryman Mike Boit. On September 10th, at the finals, Keino was overtaken and upstaged near the end of the race by the Finn Pekka Vasala who won the gold (3:36.33). Disappointed Keino was second (3:36.81), Rod Dixon won the bronze (3:37.46), and 23 year-old legendary Michael Kipsubut “Mike” Boit who had won the 800m Olympic bronze on September 2nd was fourth (3:38.41).

Not much was heard about Vitus Ashaba after the Olympics of 1972. He died in 1985, in his early forties, and was survived by widow Joy Namata and five offspring–Dorothy Nshemereirwe, Gerald Mugume, Julius Barinjura, Humphrey Tumushabe, and Chris Tunanukye. Ashaba was interred at his ancestral home in Kyegwisha Village in Ibanda District, in Uganda.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Accident Brings Ryun Bid to End,” in “Spokane Daily Chronicle” (September 8, 1972).

Jonathan Musere