Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Great Olympic Moments - John Akii-Bua

The story of John Akii-Bua is one of triumph and tragedy. It is one that both defines the Olympic ideal, and exposes it as a lie.

At Munich in 1972, Akii-Bua (to this day, the only Ugandan to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field) came out of nowhere to win the gold medal in the 400 Intermediate Hurdles (an event which later would be made famous in America by Edwin Moses). From his New York Times obituary:

In 1972, after only one international competition, Akii-Bua arrived at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. His opposition in the 400-meter hurdles included Dave Hemery of Britain, the world record-holder and defending Olympic champion, and Ralph Mann, an American. His only pair of running shoes was two years old, and one shoe was missing a spike.

But he was built ideally (6 feet 2 inches and 170 pounds), and he had trained with frightening intensity. In the six months before the Olympics, his training had included wearing a vest weighted with 25 pounds in lead as he ran 1,500 meters over five hurdles that were 42 inches high -- the hurdles for his race were 36 inches. He did four sets of those repetitions, twice a day, every day.

He won the Olympic gold medal in 47.82 seconds, a world record, leaving the silver medalist, Mann (48.51 seconds), and the bronze medalist, Hemery (48.52), six meters behind. Then he ran a victory lap and jumped over the hurdles again.

Watching that race was one of my family's favorite moments in that Olympiad. The pure joy that Akii-Bua felt after his victory radiated off of the television screen.

Unfortunately, that would be the high-water mark of Akii-Bua's track career. Akii-Bua was a member of the Lango tribe, one of the primary targets of the Idi Amin regime. Thus, while Akii-Bua was too prominent a figure to be jailed (or assassinated), from that point on he was never allowed to leave the country to participate in an international meet. In 1977, he described his dilemma in a Sports Illustrated piece titled "Political Prisoner."

A member of the Lango tribe that Idi Amin , the sinister Ugandan dictator, has been purging, Akii-Bua described his situation to Bill Brubaker of The Miami News in an overseas phone call last week.

While his African and American friends have feared for his life, Akii-Bua told Brubaker that he was in no danger. He is a policeman in Kampala, and he does not want to leave Uganda permanently because he has 15 family members to support.

"I may run no more," Akii-Bua said to Brubaker . "I have still been training but I can't get any competition anymore. It's because of the National Council of Sports. They won't give me clearance to compete out of Uganda . They just don't want me to go. They want me to carry a coach with me. I don't need a coach. We have only one national coach, and if I take him, the rest of the athletes in the country—about 30 of them—will stay without a coach."

Apprised of his friends' concern, Akii-Bua said, "I'm glad they care about me. Naturally I'm disappointed. Sometimes I think of quitting track forever, but I think Edwin Moses [world-record setter in last week's AAU meet, page 24] needs me. Only I can challenge him, nobody else. In my spare time I don't do anything. I just sit and listen to records. You know, Diana Ross ."

Akii-Bua survived the Idi Amin years, but at great cost:

In 1979, with Tanzanian troops about to capture Kampala, Akii-Bua, his wife and their three children fled to Kenya.

As a police official under Amin, he was jailed there for three weeks. He was almost shipped back to Uganda to almost certain death until the West German Embassy and Puma, the German sports-shoe company whose shoes he wore, helped him get his freedom.

He sent his wife and children to West Germany and soon joined them there.

But first he returned to Kampala to check on his family and home. He learned that five brothers and a sister had been killed (his father, a county chief who died in 1965, had 43 children with eight wives). He found his house destroyed by bombs. It had been looted. His Olympic gold medal was gone.

Akii-Bua died in 1997, and was given a state funeral. His performance in 1972 remains one of the greatest Olympic track and field moments.

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