“‘This is a land of rumor,’ he said with a loose gesture that seemed to include all of East Africa. ‘I don’t know why. We get enough news. But the rumors still fly. Last week everybody ran out of Kampala because rumormongers said there was fighting at Entebbe. There was none. I think you will find Uganda a peaceful country. Just maybe a little nervous.'” — Akii-Bua, to Kenny Moore, on the latter’s arrival to Uganda in 1972
There’s a fairly good documentary available on youtube about John Akii–Bua, but since not all of you have that kind of time or will, I’ll write about him. He definitely earns at least a chapter in the book that should probably be written about the intertwining of running and politics (hmmm…)
Akii–Bua was born in the then British colony of Uganda (in 1949), and came of age in the nascent Republic (independence in 1962). Akii–Bua had already had some modicum of success under British-born coach Malcolm Arnold* by the time Idi Amin took control of Uganda in a military coup in 1971. Few knew what to expect of the new leader, but hopes were high — he was a British-trained bear of a man, having been Uganda’s national lightweight boxing champion; he was replacing the Obote regime, which was itself no great shakes. Akii–Bua focused on his running, with the support of Amin, whose own athletic successes may have played a role in his patronage.
*(Arnold deserves his own piece — he’s coached at 11 different Olympics, and stayed on as coach in Uganda even after Amin took over. It’s actually pretty surprising that he was allowed to stay, since so many non-Africans were kicked out of the country)
Akii–Bua had switched from focusing on the 110 hurdles to the 400 during the 1970 commonwealth games — Arnold had entered him in both events, convinced that Akii–Bua lacked the speed to succeed in the shorter event, but had the strength for the latter. A surprising 4th place in the longer event made up his mind. The next ~ two years, Akii–Bua focused on building the strength and speed for the event.
Now, for those who have never seen it in action, I would argue that the 400M hurdles is the hardest event in track, and certainly one of the most dramatic. I once held the starter blocks for a friend of mine at Amherst while he ran the event — I’m not sure I’ve seen as dramatic a change in a person, in such a short period of time, as I saw in him, from when he left the starting line in a blaze of speed to when he limped back over it roughly a minute later, completely spent. There’s a reason it has the nickname “The Mankiller”. Also, given the hurdles, getting tired has a certain price — people often clip hurdles and slam face first into the track.
So how did Akii
train? Like an absolute animal. His most common workout (amidst two-a-days) was this: He set up 5 high hurdles around the track, then ran 4×1500 with the hurdles, all while wearing a 25 lb. weight vest. Olympic hurdles training was no longer ‘run over a few hurdles without spilling champagne while on your country estate’.
He went to some of the steepest hills in Uganda to train up them.
The night before the Olympic final, Arnold went into Akii–Bua‘s room with four bottles of champagne (unclear why four…). After Akii–Bua drank one (!!), Arnold mentioned that he knew the (randomly assigned) lane assignment for the final. Akii–Bua had drawn the inside lane, which, based on mere physics, makes it the most difficult (you’re turning with every step). In fact, once the race started, nobody else had a chance, including world record holder and 1968 gold medalist David Hemery. He set the world record, becoming the first runner to break 48 seconds in the process (the previous record was set by Hemery in Mexico City — the altitude being neither a help nor a hindrance for a race of that distance, according to Dr. Tim Noakes, the decreased oxygen levels being roughly offset by the thinness of the air).
Akii–Bua returned to a Uganda struggling under the oppressive fist of Amin. He had just expelled all the Asians from the country (some 60,000 in total), and was already massacring his own innocent peoples, many from the minority Langi tribe, of which Akii–Bua was a member. Akii–Bua spent the much of the 1970’s in a tenuous position: While Amin’s hired security forces rounded up and killed the Langi people (including Akii–Bua‘s own brothers), Akii–Bua would be trotted out for the domestic and foreign press as proof that the Langi were treated well. Under such conditions, he trained for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where he was set for a showdown with an American he had inspired: Edwin Moses. Though the two met in Montreal, Akii–Bua was not allowed to run, after Amin led the African boycott of the Olympics (New Zealand had not been banned, despite having played a rugby match in apartheid South Africa. And yes, there is something sort of wrong about Amin refusing to compete because of a tenuous connection to the oppressive South African regime, while he was doing enough terrible oppression at home). Moses ran against the ghost of Akii–Bua, stealing his world record during the gold-medal run (I think my favorite part of the documentary is the interview with Moses, who clearly idolizes Akii–Bua, and just seems like a generally swell guy).
When it became clear that Amin’s government was falling, making Akii–Bua both a target of the Amin government (for being a Langi) and the incoming government (Akii–Bua being a symbol of the Amin government), the runner escaped to a Kenyan refugee camp. While in the camp, a film crew took footage of him — the condition of the Olympic Gold Medalist shocked the international press, along with his former sponsor at Puma, Armin Dassler (son of Puma founder, and Nazi, Rudolf Dassler). Akii–Bua was given a sinecure at the company’s headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany (okay, my 2nd favorite part of the documentary is the story his son tells about the family in Germany — it’s very Fresh Prince / Diff’rent Strokes). Akii–Bua half-heartedly trained for the 1980 Olympics, where he struggled.
Akii–Bua was not built for a desk job. He had no real formal education, and had spent his time in the Ugandan Police Force focused on running. After a few years in Germany, sitting at a desk doing next to nothing, he returned to Uganda. He had been promoted well above his pay grade (due to his athletic success), so was confronted by educated, talented underlings who didn’t respect him in the office. He toyed with the idea of becoming an athletics coach, or of starting a training center. Ultimately, he became a spokesperson for the Ugandan sports ministry. All in all, I think, the 1980’s were just an immensely sad time — the former champion had little money, few skills, and a history of anguish. He died at the age of 47, two years after his wife, their 11 children surviving both of them, still at that point the only Gold Medal winner from the small nation. In 2012, Uganda got its 2nd gold, when Stephen Kiprotich won the marathon.