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John Akii-Bua – Background and Hurdling Tracks to Uganda’s Olympic Gold and Munich’s Top Highlight
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. With the influence of the coach Malcolm Arnold, Akii-Bua became convinced that he would reap more rewards as a 400 meters-hurdler. In the finals of the 400mh at the Commonwealth Games (Edinburgh, Scotland, 16th to 25th July 1970) 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. John Sherwood (England) was the gold medalist (50.03s), Bill Koskei of Uganda (but soon to return to and compete for his native Kenya) second (50.15s), and Kipkemboi Charles Yego of Kenya third (50.19s).
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.
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 400m 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” issue of 28th August 1972 predictably listed Ralph Mann, William Koskei, and Akii-Bua as the premier medal prospects.
At the Olympic Games Koskei, though running in advantageous lane 4, was eliminated in the first round. His 4th place finishing in Heat 2, in 50.58s would not allow him to move on to the next round. At the Olympics in 1972, Uganda’s John Akii-Bua would win in a world record of 47.82 seconds, becoming the first man to ever officially run the 400m hurdles in less than 48 seconds. Ralph Mann won silver by several yards behind Akii, Hemery 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 photo finish 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 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.
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