Posts Tagged ‘William Koskei’

Vitus Ashaba, Judith Ayaa, John Akii-Bua: Presence at the 1972 Hanns-Braun Pre-Olympics Invitational Meet in Munich

December 23, 2014

A Pre-Olympic Meet in 1972, a tune-up for the upcoming Olympics, took place in Munich in West Germany in mid-August. Elite athletes from many countries, arrived in Munich approximately ten days before the 1972 Olympics, to participate. The track-and-field meet that spanned two days is also dubbed the “Hanns-Braun Memorial International Pre-Olympic Invitational.” The Ugandan athletes that would commendably perform well were hurdler, sprinter and former decathlon athlete John Akii-Bua; sprinter Judith Ayaa, and steeplechaser and middle-distance runner Vitus Ashaba.

The competition began. 22 year-old Akii-Bua, perhaps relaxing and bidding his time in cautiously avoiding the dangerous hurdling in which athletes are quite injury-prone, settled for the 400m flat, other than his 400 meters-hurdles specialization.

Most of the top results at the Invitational were published in the “Oakland Tribune” (1972: 44)

The men’s 400 meters’ lap involved four heats, and the best overall times were signified. Overall in performance, Akii was placed third (46.18) behind top finisher Fred Newhouse of the USA (45.47), and second-placed was Kenyan legend, Charles Asati (45.77). Fourth overall was Horst Schlbske (West Germany) in 46.25, and fifth was Leighton Priestley (Jamaica) in 46.30.

Surprisingly, up to this time, although he had longed to, Akii had never competed with 400 meters-hurdles USA champion and national record-holder Ralph Mann. The barrier race involving the two was inevitably eagerly anticipated. Ralph Mann was slightly ahead of Akii-Bua in terms of personal best performance in the intermediate hurdles. Akii-Bua was reasonably familiar to the track community in the USA where he won in all the numerous 400mh events that he had so far competed in during 1971 and 1972. Akii was regarded by the Americans as Ralph Mann’s main rival at the 1972 summer Olympics. In the August 1972 issue of “Sports Illustrated,” it was predicted that at these forthcoming Olympics, Akii would win in the 400mh, Ralph Mann would be second, and that Kenya’s William Koskei who had won a silver medal for Uganda at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh (Akii finished fourth) would win the Olympic bronze.

Eventually, in the 400 meters-hurdles at this meet, Ralph Mann won in 49.85, James Seymour (USA) finished second (50.02), third was William Koskei (Kenya) in 50.46, fourth was Mike Murey (Kenya)  in 50.42, and fifth was Richard Bruggeman (USA) in 50.63.

Judith Ayaa, aged 20, competed among the three heats of the women’s 400m at this pre-Olympic invitational. The best overall performances were signified. Overall, Ayaa’s performance was second best and she posted 52.68 which equaled the Africa record that she had established during the semi-finals of the event at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1970.

Yvonne Saunders (Jamaica) was the fastest 400m sprinter (52.34), third after Ayaa was Nadeshda Kolesnikova (Soviet Union) in 52.90, fourth was Karoline Kaefer (Australia) in 52.98, fifth was Penny Hunt (New Zealand) in 53.31.

The other Ugandan who performed quite well at the invitational was 29 year-old Vitus Ashaba. He finished fifth in the 3000 meters-steeplechase and his time of 8:50.08 was a new Uganda national record. In an event that has for decades been dominated by Kenyans, legendary Benjamin Jipcho (Kenya) won in 8:27.43, 1968 Olympic champion Amos Biwott (Kenya) was second in 8:30.70, third was 32 year-old legendary Kipchoge Keino (Kenya) who was quite new to this event (8:32.70), fourth was Werner Schuman (West Germany) in 8:45.89.

Weeks later, the ever versatile Keino would win the steeplechase gold at the Olympics, ahead of Jipcho and Biwott, in a new Olympic record. Ashaba would improve on his Uganda record by five seconds

Other elite competitors at the sports meet included sprinters Valeri Borzov (Russia) and Lennox Miller (Jamaica), and middle-distance runner Mike Boit (Kenya).

Works Cited

Associated Press. “U.S. 400 Quartet Eyes 38.5,” in “Oakland Tribune” (August 16, 1972).

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

Pan Africa Games–North Carolina, 1971: John Akii-Bua is Declared a Major Contender for an Olympic Gold Medal

January 14, 2013


The capacity crowd of 34000 (two-day total was 52000) at Duke University’s Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham in North Carolina, attending the USA-Pan Africa track-and-field meet (sometimes referred to as USA versus the World meet), was then the largest ever to attend a track meet in the United States’ South (southeastern) region. The July 16-17, 1971 meet was the area’s first international competition. A unified African team together with other nations (14 nations altogether) versus a USA team was a unique and unprecedented event. The onlookers became the largest and most jubilant track audience in 1971. The selected 38 African athletes included Olympic legends Charles Asati, Mohamed Gamoudi, Kipchoge Keino, and Amos Biwott.

John Akii-Bua

In the 400 meters-hurdles, the results were: John Akii-Bua, Uganda (49.0); Melvin Bassett, a local resident of Durham (50.7); William Koskei, Kenya (51.2); Ron Rondeau, Miami, FL (52.9).

William “Bill” Koskei who as an immigrant had previously competed for Uganda and had in the intermediate hurdles won the silver medal for Uganda at the 1970 Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh, returned to Kenya soon after Idi Amin’s tumultuous January 1971 coup d’etat. An injured Akii-Bua who had finished fourth at the same Commonwealth venue, now in Durham proved to be Africa’s top 400mh athlete. Akii-Bua in slicing a full second off the Africa record, and establishing a world-leading time of the year, had also astoundingly beaten the runner up Rondeau by nearly two seconds! And all this in high summer temperatures (upper 80’s to lower 90’s Fahrenheit), high humidity, and on a recently resurfaced track. After African’s had won five track gold medals at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, rumors and suspicions had surfaced that Africans were advantaged by the high-altitude conditions that they were supposedly accustomed to. But the Durham meet of a low-altitude environment proved that weather conditions were not major factors in African athletes triumphing against those of other nations.

Eventually, 20 year-old up-and-coming John Akii-Bua of Uganda became the only African to establish a significant record at the meet and after the 400 meters-hurdles victory he even considered enrolling at North Carolina Central University where he would perhaps work with renowned black American athletics coach Leroy T. Walker and also further his athletics ambitions at Wallace Wade Stadium. Akii was an anomaly in that he was a short-distance runner among the overwhelmingly middle- and long distance-running African athletes at the meet. He gained the recognition.

“Akii-Buwa [sic], a policeman from Uganda, set an African record of 49.0 in winning the second gold medal for the African men. His time was also the world’s best mark this year, and after watching his flawless hurdling form, American and African track officials predicted he will be a strong contender for a gold medal in Munich next year”  (Associated Press: 1971).

But such heartening comments regarding Akii-Bua’s victory in this technical event that was rarely associated with Africans on the international scale were rare, and the media mainly concentrated on Africa’s prowess in the middle and long distances. The turning a blind eye to and the making of Akii-Bua’s performance seem less significant was the notable absence from the competition of the American champion Ralph Mann (another Olympic medal prospect) who would have ably challenged Akii-Bua. Mann was competing in Europe.

Kipchoge Keino and Other Results

Media accolades overlooked Akii-Bua, heaping praises on Kenyan victors and legends Kipchoge Keino, Robert Ouko, and Ben Jipcho; and on Ethiopian long-distance runner Miruts Yifter who had won in the 10000m, but had dropped out of the 5000m at the end of the penultimate lap while leading, in thinking that it was the last lap. The 10000m witnessed diminutive 5’2″ Yifter finishing in 28:53.1, followed by Frank Shorter (28:53.9) of Florida Track Club, third was Gary Bjorklund (30:05.3) of Minnesota, and fourth was Ethiopia’s Wahib Nasrech (30:34.3).

In the 1500m, Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino, attempting to crush the world record (with the help of 800m Kenyan runner Naftali Bon running as a driving rabbit), moved nearly a quarter of a lap away from the top challenging pursuers, winning in 3:37.5, ahead of runner up and fellow countryman Benjamin Wabura Jipcho (3:43.9) who had won the 3000 meters-steeplechase just an hour earlier! Third in the 1500m was US Army’s Jim Crawford (3:48.0), fourth was John Baker (3:55.2) of Sports International. Africa’s 3000m steeplechase record holder Jipcho had won in 8:45.2, twenty meters ahead of Oregon Track Club’s Mike Manley (8:48.3), Sid Sink (9:00.2) of Ohio placed third, and Muhammad Yohanes (9:06.2) of Ethiopia.

In the 800m, Kenya’s Robert Ouko won in 1:46.7, a meter ahead of Juris Luzins of US Marines; with Ken Swenson (USA record holder) of the US Army placed third. Ouko would enroll in North Carolina Central University, he would be coached by legendary African American Leroy T. Walker who became the first black to coach a United States men’s Olympic track team and to serve as president of the United States Olympic Committee. Walker died in Durham, in April 2012, aged 93. At the 1972 Olympic Games, Robert Ouko would be fourth in the 800m and be part of the 4x400m Kenya Olympic gold medal winning team. Julius Sang, also part of Kenya’s gold-winning team was also enrolled at NCCU alongside Ouko

Some other notable winners at the meet included USA’s John Smith (Southern California Striders) who triumphed in both the 200m (20.7) and 400m (45.7); Rayleane Boyle (23.1) of Australia in the 200m ahead of runner-up and African legend Alice Annum (23.2) of Ghana.

Overall, the USA men’s team beat the visiting teams by 111-78, and the USA women overwhelmingly won easily.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Pan African Games Close,” in “The Robesonian” (July 18, 1971).

The Best of Uganda’s Commonwealth Games Performances: Edinburgh and Christchurch

April 12, 2011

It was at the Commonwealth of Nations Games of 1970 and 1974, that were held in the city Edinburgh in Scotland and in Christchurch in New Zealand respectively, that Uganda’s competitors were most victorious at these quadrennial events.

In 1970, Uganda’s performance in boxing was the most uplifting with Uganda winning three gold medals (James Odwori, Mohamed Muruli, and Benson Masanda) and two silver medals (Leo Rwabwogo and Deogratias Musoke). The other medals won for Uganda were on the track–William Koskei’s silver medal in the 400 meters-hurdles, and Judith Ayaa’s bronze medal in the women’s 400 meters. Uganda performed equally well at the Commonwealth Games of 1970.

Bronze medal wins in boxing, at the Commonwealth Games held in Kingston in Jamaica in 1966, by Alex Odhiambo, Mathias Ouma, and Benson Ocan were indication that Uganda was moving up in international amateur boxing ranks. Uganda’s performance at the Commonwealth Games, four years earlier (1962) in Perth in Australia, witnessed Uganda win her first Commonwealth gold by way of heavyweight boxer George Oywello. Also impressive at the venue were the boxing bronze medal wins by John Sentongo and future national army commander and Olympic Committee member Francis Nyangweso, and the silver medal won by future national boxing trainer Kesi Odongo. To buttress Uganda’s confidence in the realm of boxing were Uganda’s first and only Olympic medal wins, at the 1968 venue Mexico City, by boxers Leo Rwabwogo and Eridadi Mukwanga–a bronze and silver medal respectively. That is in spite of the lofty Olympic judging of 1968 and later 1972 that was seemingly tinged with racial bias and favoritism.

Edinburgh, Scotland 1970
At the 1970 Commonwealth of Nations Games, the teenager James Odwori was Uganda’s boxing competitor in the flyweight division. The beginning was quite easy for Odwori, given that he was not drawn among the four out of the total 10 flyweights that would fight in the preliminary rounds on July 17th. Since the total numbers of competitors in the very low and the very high weight divisions were relatively fewer, many were automatically placed in the next round–the quarter finals. The first flyweight quarter-finals bout was on July 20th. Odwori beat Anthony Kerr of host-country Scotland, on points, and earned his ticket to the semi-finals. In the semi-finals that involved four contenders, Odwori was again scheduled to box in the first bout. By a majority points decision, Odwori impressively beat Mickey Abrams of England, on July 22nd and was through to the finals! Odwori would move on to beat Anthony Davis of Wales by points, to win Uganda’s first 1970 Commonwealth Games gold medal. Odwori had impressively set the standard for Uganda boxers. He boxed for the Uganda Prisons and the national teams for more than ten years to come and later went back to his native Kenya where he became Kenya Prisons boxing coach and later Kenya national coach.

The flyweight division involved twelve contenders at the Commonwealth Games of 1970. Just like Odwori, Uganda’s contender Leo Rwabwogo luckily bypassed the preliminary round of July 17th such that he would first fight as a quarter-finalist. On July 20th Leo Rwabwogo was place in the quarter-finals to fight Leon Nissen (whose identical twin Henry was also a boxer)  of Australia. The referee stopped the contest in the second round, a technical knockout in favor of Rwabwogo, allowing Rwabwogo to move on the semi-finals. On July 22nd, Rwabwogo was placed in the first bantamweight semi-final bout with opponent 18 year-old David Larmour of Ireland who would later become an Olympian and professional boxer. Rwabwogo won by a majority points decision. For the finals, Rwabwogo would battle with future professional and Englishman David (Dave) Needham of Nottingham. Needham ably outpointed Rwabwogo by 4-1, allowing Rwabwogo to settle for the silver medal. The gold medal had eluded Rwabwogo at the Olympic Games in Mexico City where he settled for bronze; and in the forthcoming Olympics of 1972 that were held in Munich in Germany, Rwabwogo would again fall short of the big win after being defeated in the finals. But famed Rwabwogo remains Uganda’s only double-Olympic medallists and the only Ugandan to have captured medals at both the Olympic and Commonwealth Games.

Uganda’s bantamweight contender Eridadi Mukwanga had at the Olympic Games of 1968 in Mexico city cemented history by becoming the nation’s first Olympic silver medallist. At these Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Rwabwogo was in the very last bout of the bantamweight division scheduled to fight Joe Cooke of Canada. Mukwanga was not able to live up to his fame and expectations, defeated by points by Joe Cooke of Canada on July 18th. Cooke would later on also be kicked out of medal contention, when he was defeated by Stewart Ogilvie of Scotland, after the referee stopped the bout in the first round.

In the featherweight division Uganda’s Deogratias Musoke strutted his feathers. At the preliminaries, on July 18th, Musoke was pitted against unheralded G. Marisa of Tanzania. The bout went in favor of Musoke after the referee halted the contest in the second round. On July 21st, in the quarter-finals, Musoke moved on to the semi-finals after beating Eddie Pritchard of Wales by points. For the semi-finals was scheduled to meet with Pakistan’s Abdul Samad Mir. The fight did not materialize because Samad Mir was unable to fight. It became an easy walkover in favor of Musoke. The consolation for Pakistan was that Mir’s bronze medal was the sole one for the nation at this Commonwealth Games’ venue. Also, Samad Mir remains one of the most famous of Pakistani boxers. In the 1970’s he was declared “Best Boxer of Asia.”  He joined the army and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. He also coached the Pakistani’s Army Boxing  as well as National teams. Samad Amir passed away in May 2009.

In the finals, Musoke would face Kenya’s longstanding boxing legend Philip Waruinge whose boxing accolades include multiple medals at both the Commonwealth and the Olympic Games. Deogratias Musoke, defeated on points in the finals on July 24th, was awarded the featherweight boxing silver medal.

The preliminary lightweight bout on July 18th, between Uganda’s teenager Joseph Nsubuga and Olympian Kenneth Mwansa of Zambia, resulted in an early farewell for Nsubuga who was defeated by points.

Mohamed Muruli, one of Uganda’s master boxers, had as a lightweight been placed fifth overall at the Olympics of 1968 in Mexico City. This time, Muruli would represent Uganda as a light welterweight. There were twelve competitors in this division and Muruli was lucky to be drawn into the quarter-finals and therefore forego fighting in the preliminaries of July 17th. In the quarter-finals, held on July 20th, Muruli outpointed Reginald Forde of Guyana. Forde remains one of the most famous Guyanese boxers. On September 14th 1978, Reggie Forde was as a professional fighter knocked out in the fifth round by famed Uganda boxer Ayub Kalule, in the quest for the British Empire Commonwealth title.

On July 22nd, in the semi-finals, hard-hitting Muruli defeated future Olympian Odartey Lawson of Ghana when the referee stopped the fight in the first round. Muruli moved on to win the gold for Uganda after outpointing Dave Davis of Wales on July 24th.

The welterweight division witnessed Uganda’s Olympian Andrew Kajjo eliminate Hugo Chansa of Zambia by points on July 17th 1970. The next year Chansa would turn professional and in April 1974 he would die from brain injuries soon after being knocked out by Scotland’s Don McMillan in a middleweight bout. On June 20th, Emma Ankudey of Ghana would mar Kajjo’s quest for a medal by beating him by points in the quarter-finals. Ankudey would eventually win the gold medal and also represent Ghana at the Olympics of 1972 in Montreal.

Uganda’s biracial light-middleweight boxing champion David Jackson was drawn to start fighting in the quarter-finals, and not fight among the eight competitors in the preliminaries. As a teenager Jackson was placed fifth overall in among the light-middleweight competitors at the Olympics of 1968 in Mexico City. This time in Edinburgh, Jackson did not go far, given that on July 20th the referee halted the bout in the first round in favor of Tom Imrie of Scotland. Imrie had won the Commonwealth silver medal at the previous venue of Kingston in Jamaica and he remains a famous Scottish boxer. Imrie would be the eventual gold medal winner this time in Edinburgh, and thereafter move on to professional fighting. His record as a professional pugilist was mediocre. David Jackson would again fight for Uganda at the forthcoming Olympics (1972) in Montreal, and be placed 9th overall in the welterweight division.

The teenager John Opio moved on to the quarter-finals, after defeating future professional boxer Billy May of Wales, by points on July 20th in the preliminary rounds of the middleweight division. But in the quarter-finals, against Samuel Kasongo of Zambia, Opio was eliminated after the referee stopped the contest in the third round. Opio would represent Uganda at the forthcoming Olympics in Munich.

The preliminaries of the light heavyweight division involved the second-round disqualification of Commonwealth bronze medallist and 2-time Olympian George Mathias Ouma at the hands of Johnny Banham of England on July 18th.

Because there were only seven contestants in the heavyweight division, and six were placed in the quarter-finals. It was Uganda’s Benson Masanda, among the seven boxers, who hit the jackpot by automatically being placed in the next level–the semi-finals! The quarter-finals took place on July 20th. In the semi-finals on July 22nd, Masanda defeated Canada’s Jack Meda by disqualification in round 2. In the finals, on July 24th, Masanda won gold by defeating John McKinty of Ireland by points. Compared to all Uganda’s boxing participants, Masanda had won the gold in quite an easy and unconventional way. This would be Uganda’s second Commonwealth Games’ gold medal, following that of George Oywello in 1962 in Perth in Australia.

Courtesy of the final tally of gold medals won by James Odwori, Mohamed Muruli, and Benson Masanda; and silver medals won by Leo Rwabwogo and Deogratias Musoke Uganda had convincingly emerged as Commonwealth of Nations’ boxing championships. This was the first collective international victory for Uganda, and the nation rejoicingly looked forward to more triumphs at the international level. The rest of Uganda’s medals were just two: the silver medal won by William “Bill” Koskei in the 400 meters-hurdles, and the bronze medal won by Judith Ayaa in the 400 meters-sprint. The total of three gold, three silver, and one bronze medal placed Uganda as ninth overall at this Commonwealth tournament with 7 medals. How would Uganda’s boxers fare in the next Commonwealth venue that would be Christchurch in New Zealand in 1974? There had been a military coup in Uganda, commander Idi Amin became president, the regime became notorious for killings and disappearances of nationals and even foreigners. Anxiety loomed as to whether unfavorable social and political factors would translate to disappointing performances in the realm of sports. And yes, many aspects of sports deteriorated during the regime of Idi Amin, and the pool of potential and current athletes was reduced. But how would Uganda fare in Christchurch, two years to the day into the regime of Idi Amin?

Christchurch, New Zealand 1974
Christchurch hosted the Commonwealth of Nations’ Games from January 24th to February 2nd, 1974. The boxing flyweight division saw the returning of the gold medallist James Odwori of Uganda.  In the quarter-finals, on January 28th, Odwori knocked out Tanzanian Olympian Bakari Selemani (Seleman) in the second round. The semi-finals, held on January 31st witnessed Odwori defeat Singapore’s Syed Abdul Kadir by points. Kadir remains one of Singapore’s most renowned fighters, and was named “Sportsman of the Year” after his Commonwealth Games’ bronze medal win.

The finals of the light flyweight division were held of February 1st. This time, Odwori would be pitted against Kenyan Stephen Muchoki who remains one of Kenya’s most famous boxers. The relatively shorter Muchoki outpointed the champion Odwori, leaving Odwori to settle for silver. Muchoki would successfully defend his Commonwealth gold at the forthcoming venue Edmonton in Canada, in 1978. His illustrious career also included the silver medal win at the World Amateur Championships in Havana in 1974, and later the gold in the tournament which was hosted by Belgrade in Yugoslavia in 1978. Muchoki would thereafter move into the professional ranks and even become Africa Boxing Union champion. But he failed in his quest for the European title and the World Boxing Association title, and he retired from boxing during the late 1980’s.

In the quarter-finals of the flyweight division, on January 29th, Ugandan John Byaruhanga knocked-out John Lawless of Scotland in the second round. But in the semi-finals, January 31st, Byaruhanga was defeated on points by Olympian Chandra Narayanan of India. Byaruhanga hence settled with the bronze medal.

Uganda’s bantamweight Ali Rojo was drawn as a quarter-finalist to fight Olympian Habibu (Habib) Kinyogoli of Tanzania on January 28th. Rojo won by points and moved on to the semi-finals. Kinyogoli remains one of the most renowned of Tanzania’s boxer and he is a boxing trainer.

The January 31st bantamweight semi-final was in favor of Rojo, by points, leaving Kenyan Isaac Kuria Maina to go home with the bronze. in the finals, on February 1st, Patrick “Pat” Cowdell of England killed Ali Rojo’s quest for the gold by winning by points. Rojo had won the second boxing medal for Uganda. A famous British boxer, Cowdell would build an impressive boxing career during which he became a European Union champion. But he failed to win in his fighting for a world title.

Uganda’s featherweight competitor was Shadrack (Shadrah? Shadrach?) Odhiambo. On January 29th, in the quarter-finals, young future Olympian and long-time fighter Odhiambo outpointed Colin Flinn of England. Odhiambo would later as a light welterweight fight for Sweden and win her a bronze medal at the World Amateur Championships in 1982 in Munich. Odhiambo also fought for Sweden in the 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (Los Angeles) Olympics. He did not win any Olympic medals.

In the Christchurch Commonwealth games semi-final, Odhiambo ably defeated Dale Anderson of Canada by points on January 31st. However, the finals, on February 1st witnessed experienced Commonwealth Games’ champion Eddie Ndukwu of Nigeria win the gold medal on a points decision. Odhiambo had won Uganda’s third boxing silver medal! Ndukwu would soon turn professional and even reign as British Empire (Commonwealth) featherweight champion. Ndukwu remains among the more formidable names among Nigerian boxers.

On January 27th, in the preliminaries, a locally popular and heavily promising 20 year-old lightweight lad Ayub Kalule climbed into the ring to challenge Tanzanian William Lyimo who was the same age as Kalule. Kalule won, by points. In 1980, Lyimo aged 27 would fight at the Olympic Games held in Moscow. He commendably passed the second round, but was in the quarter-finals knocked out in the third round by 20 year-old Anthony Willis of Great Britain. He would thus settle for 5th position in the welterweight division. Many African countries boycotted the Olympic venue of Moscow. Heaney later became a professional boxer, but he would soon retire without an acclaimed boxing record.

In the quarter-finals of the Commonwealth Games’ lightweight boxing fight in Christchurch, on January 28th 1974, Ayub Kalule ably out-boxed and bloodily facially disfigured 22 year-old Irishman “Sugar” Ray Heaney. The fight is featured on You-Tube whereby Heaney was allotted two mandatory counts given the formidable punishing from the fast and hard-punching Kalule.

In the semi-finals, Kalule was set to face New Zealand teenager Robert Charles Colley. The outcome involved Colley being outpointed and settling for the bronze medal.

At the quarter finals, Kalule was pitted against 19 year-old New Zealander Robert Charles Colley. Colley would be outpointed (and settle for the bronze), allowing Kalule to move on to the final stage. After being eliminated by Russian Valery Limasov in the first round at the Olympic Games of 1976 held in Montreal (Canada), Colley would turn professional. Though Colley’s professional record is impressive, it is mediocre insofar as his fights were confined to New Zealand and Australia, and Colley retired quite early in life…in 1980. At the finals of these Commonwealth Games, Kalule would outpoint Kayin Amah of Nigeria and therefore win the gold. Kayin Amah, who had in the preliminaries lost to legendary Philip Waruinge of Kenya in the previous Commonwealth Games (1970), would this time be happier with taking home a silver.

Perhaps Ayub Kalule’s most prestigious amateur encounter, would be the inaugural World Amateur Boxing Championships that were held in Havana in Cuba in August 17-30. Here, Kalule, a light welterweight, defeated Bulgarian Vladmir Kolev to win the gold. In November of the same year, Kalule still as a light welterweight, won another gold medal for Uganda. This was at the African Amateur Boxing Championships that were held in Kampala on Kalule’s soil. The next year Kalule turned professional in Denmark, rose rapidly through the ranks. He could go on to become Uganda’s first professional world boxing champion (WBA junior middleweight). His accolades included becoming a European Boxing Union Champion, and battling such renowned boxers as “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Sumbu Kalambay, Mike McCallum, Lindell Holmes, and Herol Graham. Kalule fought in what many regard as the golden era of junior middleweight champions. Kalule is still Uganda’s most famous boxer. In March 2011, Kalule was contracted to coach top junior Danish boxers.

Joseph Nsubuga had been eliminated on points by Kenneth Mwansa of Zambia right at the beginning of the preliminaries at the previous Commonwealth Games venue Edinburgh. There Nsubuga had represented Uganda as a lightweight. Nsubuga, still a teenager, was now back at the Commonwealth Games to fight as a light welterweight. This time, the preliminary first round on January 27 witnessed Nsubuga quickly overwhelm his opponent. The fight did not go far. The referee halted the contest in the first round, dashing the hopes of Philip Sapak of Papua New Guinea. However, two days later in the quarter-finals, James Douglas of Scotland defeated Nsubuga by points and thereby halted Nsubuga’s quest for a medal.

Months later, in August, Nsubuga would win a bronze medal for Uganda at the inaugural World Amateur Boxing Championships in Havana. Nsubuga had moved up to the middleweight division. Quite a skillful boxer, Nsubuga would turn professional and move to Norway, and he would mostly fight in Europe. Nsubuga stopped competing in 1981 when he was knocked out by famous future world champion Davey Moore. Perhaps Nsubuga’s most notable professional fight was his spirited gladiator battle (non-title bout) with legendary Panamanian Roberto Duran. Though Duran seemed to be tiring, Joseph “Stoneface” Nsubuga was knocked out at the end of the fourth round. This fight is available on You-Tube.

Welterweight Mohamed Muruli had won Uganda a gold medal at the previous Commonwealth of Nations Games’ venue Edinburgh. There in 1970, Muruli had boxed as a lightweight. Here in Christchurch, Muruli was representing Uganda as a welterweight. The preliminary round witnessed Muruli outpunch Caleb Okech of Kenya, on January 26th. On January 29th, during the quarter-finals, Muruli beat future Olympian Carmen Rinke of Canada by points. The semi-finals involved Muruli beating Steven Cooney of Scotland, by points on January 31st. On February 1st, Muruli became the first Ugandan to ever win two Commonwealth Games’ gold medals by outpointing Welsh Errol McKenzie in the finals. McKenzie would turn professional during 1975, but he retired after an unimpressive boxing record. Muruli is among Uganda’s outstanding boxers, and he twice represented Uganda at the Olympics.

Uganda’s light middleweight John Langol was rescued by the referee who stopped the preliminaries match-up of January 27th 1974 against Lance Revill of New Zealand. The fight was stopped in the second round. In 1981, Langol moved to Birmingham in England to fight professionally. His professional tenure would last only four years and it would involve an unimpressive record of 6 wins and 8 losses. Revill would fight professionally in Australia and New Zealand, but his boxing record would be average.

On January 29th of 1974, in a quarter-final, Uganda’s middleweight champion Mustapha Wasajja was knocked out in the first round by Les Rackley of New Zealand. At the inaugural World Boxing Championships held on August 1974 in Havana, Wasajja was eliminated by points in the quarter-finals. In November, Wasajja would become Africa amateur champion at the regional tournament held in Kampala. In a pre-Olympic international tournament held in Montreal at the end of November 1975, Wasajja won Uganda’s only gold at the venue. Wasajja is notable for having become the premier WBA light heavyweight contender after he turned professional. He lost the mandatory championship fight to Michael Spinks, in February 1982. Wasajja mostly fought in Europe and his boxing record is quite impressive. After Spinks, Wasajja lost his next two fights and thereafter retired from boxing. Wasajja is one of Uganda’s greatest boxers.

Just as had happened in the previous Commonwealth Games, the reigning heavyweight champion Benson Masanda of Uganda was directly placed in the quarter-finals because there were not many contenders in the class. On January 28th Masanda outpointed Fisi Brown of New Zealand. In the semi-finals, the referee stopped the bout in favor of legendary Nigerian Fatai Ayinla, an Olympian who had won the light heavyweight gold at the previous Commonwealth Games. Masanda was hence made to step down for the bronze medal. In turn, the referee would stop the bout in favor of Neville Meade, in the finals. Fatai Ayinla-Adekunle’s accolades include the heavyweight gold medal at the 1973 All-Africa Games in Lagos, and a bronze medal at the 1974 World Amateur Boxing Championships in Havana. He boxed for Nigeria for many years.

Uganda’s other medals were won on the track. Uganda’s Silver Ayoo (46.07), narrowly beaten by Kenyan legendary Olympic gold medallist Charles Asati (46.04), won the silver medal in the 400 meters. Uganda’s 4 x 400m relay team won the bronze medal, behind Kenya (gold) and England. The relay competitors were William Santino Dralu, Pius Olowo, Silver Ayoo, and Samuel Kakonge.

The Final Tally
At Commonwealth Games of 1970, held in Edinburgh, Uganda’s three boxing gold medals were won by light flyweight James Odwori, light welterweight Mohamed Muruli, and heavyweight Benson Masanda; and the two silver medals were won by flyweight Leo Rwabwogo, and featherweight Deogratias Musoke. Uganda did not win any bronze medals here.

In 1974 in Christchurch, the two gold medals were won by lightweight Ayub Kalule and light welterweight Mohamed Muruli; the three silver medals were won by light flyweight James Odwori, bantamweight Ali Rojo, and featherweight Shadrach Odhiambo; and the two bronze medals were won by flyweight John Byaruhanga and heavyweight Benson Masanda.

Hence, while Uganda won slightly more boxing medals in 1974, the medals in 1970 subtly carried “more weight.” For those eight years, Uganda had the best amateur boxers amongst the Nations of the British Commonwealth. Additionally, at each of the Commonwealth Games venues, Ugandan track athletes finished second and third (William Koskei–400 meter-hurdles and Judith Ayaa–400m, respectively in 1970, and Silver Ayoo–400m and Silver Ayoo, William Santino Dralu, Pius Olowo and Samuel Kakonge–the 4 x 400m relay, respectively in 1974). In 1970 Uganda finished 12th overall in track and field athletics; Australia, England, and Scotland were the top three countries. Similarly, in 1974 Uganda finished 12th overall in track and field athletics; but England, Australia, and Kenya were the top three countries. The overall performances of Uganda at each of the Commonwealth Games venues were hence strikingly similar. Uganda has never performed better than that at the Commonwealth Games, ever since those 1970’s.

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