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John Akii-Bua

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John Akii-Bua (3 December 1949 – 20 June 1997),[1] was a Ugandan Olympic champion who won the 400m hurdles at the Munich Olympic games in 1972. As of 2008, he remains the only Olympic gold medal winner from that nation.

Akii-bua was one of the 43 children sired by his father, a prominent chief from the Lango tribe of northern Uganda who had eight wives. He had a comfortable upbringing, but no one could have expected him to reach international stardom in track and field competition.[2]

Akii-Bua started as a sprint hurdler but failed to qualify for the 1968 Summer Olympics and did not improve much more over the next two years. His coach Malcolm Arnold suggested he attempt the 400 meter hurdles and despite being a novice he managed to qualify for the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and finished fourth in the final.[3] Despite running some fast times during 1971, in Munich the favoured athletes included David Hemery of Britain, the world record-holder and defending Olympic champion and Ralph Mann, an American and the number one ranked 400 m hurdler from 1971.[4] To the surprise of almost everyone, Akii-Bua won the race a full six metres ahead of Mann, breaking the world record and becoming the first to break 48 seconds. This was an astounding achievement given he had drawn lane one in the final, considered a disadvantage due to the tighter turns.[5] Victory laps were discouraged but Akii-Bua eluded officials and continued hurdling and waving a Ugandan flag that someone had handed him. Many describe this as a memorable moment of jubilance for an Olympics that is more renowned for terrorism.[3] Years later an American sportscaster, Jim McKay (ABC), asked "who would ever forget John Akii-Bua taking his country's flag and running around the track with it."

Due to the African boycott of the 1976 Summer Olympics he could not defend his title, although he did return to the Olympic arena in 1980 but failed to move on from his semi-final. Today, at least one school and one street are named for Akii-Bua. His name has entered the local parlance; in Ugandan English “to Akii-Bua” means to hurry or to run fast (“I was late, so I Akii-Bua’d”).

A forthcoming documentary by the BBC called "Looking for John" is due to air in time for the Beijing Olympics. The documentary is to be based on diaries that Akii-Bua had given to Malcolm Arnold in 1981.[6]

Notes

  1. Frank Litsky (1997) John Akii-Bua, 47, Is Dead; Ugandan Won Olympic Gold, New York Times, June 25 Obituary.
  2. Although most sources give 42 siblings, Akii-Bua’s father is sometimes stated to have 50 children born to nine different wives
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kenny Moore (1972) A Play Of Light And Shadow, Sports Illustrated, November 20,
  4. Track and Field News rankings for 400m hurdles (pdf). Akii-Bua was ranked 3rd in 1971 and was ranked in the top ten for an additional 5 years:
    1971 3rd
    1972 1st
    1973 1st
    1974 8th
    1975 2nd
    1976 5th
  5. Technically he was at a disadvantage too, since he favoured a right leg lead that pushed him further out in his lane. This required him to run further than his more technically competent competitors who used a left leg lead. Video of the Munich final, commentator David Coleman
  6. Akii-Bua Film Out 1 May 2008, from All-Africa Global Media