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Judith Ayaa and Athletic Performances: Africa, Commonwealth Games, Olympics, and Pan Africa-USA Meet
Judith Ayaa was born on July 15, 1952 in Koch Goma sub-county in Nwoya District in Uganda. During a time when African women’s participation in athletics was generally in its nascent and amateur stages, young Ayaa became a household name among African women’s track stars. Ayaa was the first Ugandan woman to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games. The women who won medals at the Commonwealth Games in Uganda who followed in her footsteps are three: Ruth Kyalisiima (Kyarisiima/ Kyalisima) in Brisbane in 1982 where she won silver in the 400 meter hurdles (57.10), gold medalist Dorcus Inzikuru in the 3000 meter steeplechase in Melbourne in 2006 where she set a Games record (9:19.51), and bronze medalist Winnie Nanyondo who was third in the 800m (2:01.38) in Glasgow in 2012.
Judith Ayaa’s career on the track would be short-lived, although of considerable achievement.
Judith Ayaa’s record at the East and Central African Athletics Championships is incredible. In 1968 (Dar-es-Salaam), Ayaa won gold in the 100 meter sprint, finishing in 11.5. The following year in the middle of August 1969, Ayaa confirmed and confirmed her conviction through in the same championships (Kampala) winning in the 100 meters (11.8), the 200 meters (25.0), and the 400m (53.6). Jane Chikambwe, who is considered an athletics legend in Zambia, won silver medals behind Ayaa in the 100m and 200m. Here in Kampala in 1969, Ayaa was part of Uganda’s 4x100m relay team which won in 49.5. In the same year, based on her personal best time of 53.6, Judith Ayaa was among the top 10 female 400m runners in the world.
In 1970 at the same ECA Championships (Nairobi), Judith Ayaa did not slip behind. The slender young woman with a “Mercedes-Benz” body won again in the 100m (11.8), the 200m (24.1), and the 400m (54.0s).
It was at the Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh in Scotland in 1970 that Judith Ayaa established herself as an international athlete to be reckoned with. In these Games, Judith Ayaa competed particularly in the 100m and 400m. On July 17th, Ayaa was placed in the first of the five 100m heats. She performed fairly well, finishing in second place, behind Jenny Lamy from Australia, in 11.92 seconds. But the semi-finals, the next day, were not so fruitful for Ayaa. She was placed in the second of the two semi-finals, and was beaten to sixth place (11.93) and eliminated from progressing to the finals. The finals, later in the day, were won by Raelene Boyle of Australia, followed by the legendary Alice Annum of Ghana, and then Marion Hoffman of Australia for the bronze medal.
There were far fewer competitors in the 400m so there would only be two rounds of competition. On July 22nd, Ayaa was placed in the second of two heats of the first round. Ayaa won in a relatively astonishing time of 52.86 seconds, a new Ugandan and African record. Ayaa’s finish time placed her eleventh in the world in 1970. Alice Annum who was scheduled to compete in the same round did not start.
Ayaa went on to the finals which would be contested the next day. But she may have run too fast instead of running relaxed but enough to be among the top four from each round which would automatically qualify for the finals. Sandra Brown from Australia, was second, and a full second behind Ayaa. The other semi-final heat when Marilyn Neufville won in 53.05, was more relaxed and tidy.
The finals the next day saw 17-year-old Jamaican Marilyn Fay Neufville, a small but legendary 17-year-old, winning a world record of 51.02. Neufville was impressively won by more than two seconds ahead of silver medalist Sandra Brown (53.66) of Australia; the previous world record of 51.7 set (1969) by Colette Besson and Nicole Duclos of France fell by almost a second. Judith Ayaa, who was overtaken after slowing down near the end of the race, likely due to fatigue after her futile effort in the semi-final, was third (53.77) in a photo finish behind Sandra Brown and took the bronze medal. The fatigue had probably cost her at least the silver medal; but the Commonwealth bronze would be one of Ayaa’s most prestigious international possessions!
Marilyn Neufville’s brilliant career would be short-lived due to physical injuries and fruitless surgery. At the 1974 Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch in New Zealand Neufville was 6th in the 400m finals. And in the 1976 Olympic Games held in Montreal in Canada, he took part in the first round of the 400m and qualified for the next round, but did not advance to the next round due to injuries.
The next big event for Ayaa would be between July 16-17, 1971 at Wallace Wade Stadium at Duke University in Durham in North Carolina. This was the USA vs. Africa and the Rest of the World Meet (sometimes referred to as the USA-Pan Africa Track and Field Meet). The event which attracted a high capacity crowd of a total of 52000 spectators was one of a united African team together with other nations (fourteen countries in total) against the USA team. Perhaps the main attraction was Olympic 1500m gold medalist Kipchoge Keino who was revered and famous for his track rivalry with American middle distance legend and 1500m world record holder (3:33.1) Jim Ryun. Here at Duke, Keino’s intention was to break this world record.
Other internationally acclaimed runners in the competition included Kenya’s Amos Biwott (a former Olympic champion), and Tunisian long-distance hero Mohammed Gammoudi. Ugandan percher John Akii-Bua from Uganda who was not known internationally was also there to compete.
Judith Ayaa won the gold medal at these USA-Pan African Games in 54.69. Second was Gwendolyn Norman (USA) from Sports International in 55.42, third was Jarvis Scott (USA) from Los Angeles Mercurettes in 56.0, and fourth was Titi Adeleke (Nigeria) in 59.52. John Akii-Bua won in the intermediate hurdles, setting an African record (49.0) which would become the world’s best time for 1971. The smooth-sailing Akii became a “flying policeman” competitor. for the upcoming 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. At the same time, Ayaa gained international acclaim but not to the level of Akii. Kip Keino failed to break the world record in the 1500m, but he clearly led and finished in a quite excellent 3:34.7.
John Myers sings the comments of Akii-Bua, sometimes referred to here as “John Akii-Buba” (1971: 6A): “The runners were good… The track is fast. It was not uncomfortable.”
Other notable competitors in the track and field meet included Americans Rodney Milburn and Ron Draper (high hurdles), Kenyans Robert Ouko (800m) and Benjamin Jipcho (chase); Steve Prefontaine (USA) and Miruts Yifter (Ethiopia) in the 5000m, and John Smith (USA) in the 400m.
Still in 1971, at the East and Central African Championships held in Lusaka in Zambia, Ayaa was the winner in the 400m (54.7). She was also part of Uganda’s gold medal winning relay teams: 4x100m (48.7) and 4x400m (3:50.5).
The next big challenge for Ayaa, the 1972 Olympic Games held in Munich in Germany, would be interesting. In the first round, Ayaa came fourth in lane two (52.85s) and thus qualified for the quarter finals. In the quarter finals, Judith Ayaa was pulled in lane 7 in heat two of four heats. The top four finishers of each heat would advance to the semi-finals. Ayaa finished third comfortably and set a Ugandan and African record of 52.68. The Ugandan record, Ayaa’s personal best, would stand for more than three decades. It is worth noting that in these quarter-finals, Ayaa beat Colette Besson, 26 years old from France, the small surprise winner in the same event in the previous Olympic Games (1968) in Mexico City. Besson was in lane 3 and his 5th place disqualified him from advancing to the next round.
Ayaa advanced to the semi-finals of the Olympic Games. She was in lane 2, and finished in 52.91 seconds, a 7th place finish. Ayaa had given a quite commendable performance, but the international competition was immense, and Ayaa was eliminated in her first and last competition at the Olympics. The eighth competitor, Christel Frese from West Germany, fell during the race and did not finish.
In 1972, Ayaa won a 4-time gold medal in the 400m at the East and Central African Championships. This time, in Dar-es-Salaam, Ayaa’s winning time was 55.7. She was part of the Ugandan team that won the gold medal in the 4x100m (48.7).
After 1972, Ayaa’s performance record would become lacking. He got married and started having children in succession, and neglected sports. Amin’s turbulent regime worsened the situation. Athletes received far less financial compensation for their labor and injuries than they have increasingly been in recent decades. Ayaa’s demise was far from magical; it was depressing. At some point later in her life, while looking after her two young children, Ayaa struggled, and sometimes begged on the streets of Kampala. She would crush stones for a living. Akii-Bua, who is also a national team teammate with Ayaa in the Olympic Games in 1972, would be key in drawing attention to Ayaa’s condition and the intervention in that. She was placed and a European benefactor helped with expenses. Unfortunately, in 2002 Ayaa would die young at 48 or 49, at Mulago Hospital in Kampala. Ironically, Akii-Bua who was not doing well at the time, had died around the same age as Ayaa, earlier in 1997 in the same hospital.
Ayaa’s reign on the women’s track was short but great and enduring. National and regional trophies and competitions in northern Uganda have been commemorated in the name of Judith Ayaa.
Myers, John. “Winning Score Maintains at Pan Africa Meet” in “Carolina Times” (July 24, 1971).
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