At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, a then unknown 23-year-old Ugandan athlete, John Akii-Bua, surprised the world by becoming the first man to run the 400m hurdles in under 48 seconds. In the process, he beat the much-fancied David Emery of Britain, the then Olympic champion, into third place. But it was not all sweetness from then on. The vicissitudes of Akii-Bua’s life have been captured in a documentary film shown recently in Uganda.
In a gripping tale about his life and sporting achievements, Uganda’s greatest athlete, John Akii-Bua recalls in his unpublished memoirs a sleepless night before his historic 1972 Munich Olympics triumph in the 400m hurdles, haunted by visions of the then defending Olympic champion and record holder, Britain’s David Hemery, winning.
Akii-Bua reveals in his handwritten notes upon which a 90-minute documentary film entitled, “The John Akii-Bua Story: An African Tragedy” is based, that on the night before his Olympic victory, he drank a whole bottle of champagne, provided by his British coach, Malcolm Arnold, to help him sleep.
The feature-length film, directed by Daniel Gordon, was shot in 2007, in Uganda, England and Germany. Samuel Ibanda plays the part of Akii-Bua, and John Bosco appears as Idi Amin.
It describes memories of Akii-Bua from his family and colleagues and the journey that he took from his humble beginnings training in bare feet on grass tracks, to the excitement of the Olympic Games. It also covers his later years in exile from his home country. It is the story of one man, and of Africa itself – its glory, potential and tragedy.
In the mid-1980s, when Akii-Bua’s career was over, he handed over to his British coach Arnold 12 foolscap notebooks in which, in pencil, he had handwritten his life story, detailing the horror he had experienced under Amin and his eventual escape from Uganda.
On 2 September 1972, in the Olympic Stadium in Munich, Akii-Bua was drawn in Lane One for the 400m hurdles. At 4.31pm local time, he won the gold medal in an astonishing new world record time of 47.82 sec, three-tenths of a second under the world mark set by Britain’s Hemery in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The silver went to the American Ralph Mann (48.51 sec), the bronze to Hemery (48.52 sec).
Akii-Bua told the Uganda Argus newspaper on 4 September 1972: “Worrying about it [the inside lane] encouraged me to go out really fast and I was still able to see what the others were doing.”
On his victory, he recalls in the film: “When I finished my victory and demonstration jog, I met the coach Arnold. His sight exalted my excitement and made me collapse, and I briefly wept.”
In his recollections of the medal ceremony, Akii-Bua adds: “The Ugandan national anthem played as I stood to attention with the whole stadium in respect to this small nation, which was on its way to disaster in the years to follow.”
Akii-Bua, who was 23 years old and an assistant inspector of police at the time, became the first African to win Olympic gold in an event under 800m, aside from being the first man to break the 48 sec barrier in the 400 metre hurdles, an event so gruelling its nickname is “The man killer”.
While the other runners were gasping for breath at the end of the race, the 6′ 2″ Ugandan skipped, jogged, and jumped round the track – and even leaped over a few more hurdles – on his victory lap.
He is recognised as the inventor of the victory lap. After winning he was so overwhelmed with joy that when a spectator handed him a Ugandan flag, he ran around the track waving it – beginning the victor’s “lap of honour” tradition.
Akii-Bua, “who trained on rough, grass tracks in Uganda with no special all-weather track facilities, shook the experts with his new world record. He received only the basic rudiments of technique in this hazardous event which needs high speed and co-ordination over the hurdles for effective achievement,” the Uganda Argus reported on 14 September 1972.
“I was weeping in my dressing room in Munich before that tough race started,” Akii-Bua told the Uganda Argus. “I recalled all my strenuous and long training plus my beloved country Uganda … and finally found myself bursting into tears.”
His victory in the 20th Olympiad was the first Olympic gold medal for Uganda since its maiden appearance in the Melbourne Games in 1956. To honour Akii-Bua, President Idi Amin named an avenue in Kampala and a stadium in the athlete’s hometown of Lira in northern Uganda after him. He also gave him a house in the capital.
For the last five years, the Uganda Athletics Federation (UAF) has been holding the annual Akii-Bua Track and Field Championship in commemoration of the great athlete.
Akii-Bua later won gold at the 1973 All Africa Games in Lagos, Nigeria, and a silver at the 1978 All Africa Games in Algiers, Algeria. He did not perform well in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow where he was eliminated in the semi-finals.
Initially Akii-Bua was treated as a national hero, but then Amin began to view his popularity as a threat. Prevented from competing abroad, Akii-Bua was never able to achieve the success enjoyed by his counterparts in other countries. Even back then, according to Arnold, “there was plenty of money flying about”.
Akii-Bua’s ethnic tribe, the Langi, were the primary victims of Amin’s slaughter, and his national popularity, fame, and status could only protect him for so long. Three of his brothers, James Ocen, Lawrence Ogwang, and William Dalla were murdered.
Even when a travel ban imposed on him by Amin was finally lifted in 1978, Akii-Bua’s wife Joyce and their three children were forced to remain in Kampala as hostages against his return.
Amin was finally overthrown in 1979 by Tanzanian troops. But just when the invading Tanzanians were closing in on Kampala, Akii-Bua, fearing for his life, fled with his pregnant wife, Joyce, and the three children to Kenya. Their dramatic escape through armed checkpoints is colourfully captured by the film.
In Kenya, they were put in a refugee camp and his wife gave birth prematurely to a baby boy who died. By that time, the family had become so destitute that Akii-Bua had no money to bury the poor baby.
The once glorious Olympic champion was stumbled upon by a foreign television news crew in Kakamega Refugee Camp in western Kenya, living without dignity amid starvation and squalor.
“I am a runner. I cannot tell you how bad it is here,” Akii-Bua told the journalists.
When the news was beamed around the world, Puma, which had sponsored Akii-Bua’s spikes in Munich, rescued him from the refugee camp with his family and got him a job in the marketing department in West Germany.
“We were [hold your breath] 43 children!” the notebooks begin, describing Akii-Bua’s childhood in a tiny village in the Lango tribal district, northern Uganda. “My father married nine wives. He lived a legendary life.”
When his father died in 1966, and the 16-year-old’s education halted, Akii-Bua’s mother advised him to go to Kampala for better opportunities. In the capital city he was recruited by the police force, for whom he was an all-rounder athlete. He started his athletics career as a high hurdler (110m).
Coach Arnold arrived in April 1968 as Uganda’s national athletics coach, and quietly watched the athletes from the sidelines. Arnold stayed till 1972. He found a rudimentary structure, scrubby grass tracks – and most of all, talent. He brought with him modern expertise and scientific methods, and later started the District League Athletic programme.
After finishing fourth in the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, and running the fastest season time in 1971, Akii-Bua was not a big favourite for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, having limited competition experience.
On his return from Edinburgh, Arnold persuaded Akii-Bua to concentrate on the 400m hurdles after realising that the Ugandan had the potential to become a world-beater. Akii-Bua trained diligently, and, with Arnold giving him tips, he clocked 49 sec to establish a new African record in the 400m hurdles in the first-ever Africa vs USA international meet in Durham.
“He returned home strengthened, confident and as always willing to learn,” the Uganda Argus reported. “Akii is not boastful of his achievements. He is modest, hard-working and a very dedicated athlete. Part of his success is his love of the track.”
After Edinburgh, Akii-Bua adopted unorthodox training methods for Munich. He talks about these training regimes in his notebooks – hill-running in a weighted vest, repeated 600 metre runs with just a minute’s rest, morning and afternoon, which he acknowledged were “not natural”. These methods paid off handsomely in Munich.
After Uganda, Arnold went on to guide Britain’s Colin Jackson to the 110m hurdles world record and two world championship golds, among others. Akii-Bua was his first ever champion.
Recalling the Ugandan, his greatest ever athlete, Arnold says in the film: “He had everything: enormous talent, a huge commitment and capacity for work, a very astute mind, and from nowhere, reached dizzy heights. Yet the sadness is, he only really had two years. Reviewing my own career has made me realise quite how remarkable he was.”
Arnold went on: “Of all the athletes I have worked with, I put John [Akii-Bua] number one. He came from very poor circumstances, living in a hovel while working as a policeman. We worry today about the technology of drugs; he struggled for one square meal a day. From there, his achievement was incredible.”
Akii-Bua’s career was strangled by both Amin’s dictatorship and the African nations’ boycott of the 1976 Montreal Olympics Games. He had arrived with the Ugandan team as the captain in Canada, ready to compete. The Africans withdrew, protesting against the refusal of the IOC [International Olympic Committee] to ban New Zealand from the Games because of its sporting links with apartheid South Africa.
Akii-Bua said later: “I feel that Africa was victorious at the [Montreal] Games, because the IOC was deliberate in their move to allow New Zealand to participate despite the country’s links with racists. As it were, the [IOC] feared that Africa would enjoy a better harvest of the medals and there was no other way to deny us this, other than allowing New Zealand to compete.”
Akii-Bua’s record was broken by the American Edwin Moses in 47.63 sec at the Montreal Games. Moses went on to hold the record for 16 long years until it was finally broken by Kevin Young at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
The great Ugandan died on 20 June 1997 at Mulago Hospital in Kampala from abdominal complications. He was penniless and almost forgotten, 25 years after the Munich glory.