John Akii-Bua – Triumph and Tragedy After Uganda’s Olympic Gold Medal Win

The second All-Africa Games, after the 400 meters-hurdles Olympic gold medal win in Munich in September 1972, were John Akii-Bua’s next important tournament. The Africa Games were held from 7th to 18th January 1973 in the Nigeria capital city Lagos. Africa great Bill Koskei (Kenya) made it to the finals of the men’s 400m hurdles. Also in the final line-up was Akii the nemesis of Koskei. John Akii-Bua of Uganda 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 Sto

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