viernes, 18 de noviembre de 2011

Remembering John Akii-Bua

"I remember my father bringing home sweets. There weren't enough for everyone. He set up competitions, races over different distances. We ran in groups the same age. I don't think I ever won. I had to beg sweets from my brothers.
John Akii-Bua, talking about his childhood for Sports Illustrated (5)

John Akii-Bua celebrates his victory at the 1972 Munich Olympic Gamesásico.
         John Akii-Bua’s achievements were and still are a milestone in African history of track and field. He won the only Olympic gold medal for Uganda ever in the sport, in Munich 1972, and the only one the black continent has achieved in a single event shorter than the 800 metres. He was the first man who dipped under 48 seconds at the 400 meter hurdles distance at that classic Olympic final, becoming a reference and inspiration for every African or Afro-American athlete to follow, starting by the greatest, the invincible Edwin Moses, and including the current record holder in the continent, Zambian Samuel Matete. He was also the inventor of the now-indispensable lap of honour and an unusual performer, with an unorthodox approaching to the speciality. He was finally a man with a personal life often touched by tragedy, as a result of the convulse situation of his country at the time.  
           Akii-Bua was born in December 1949 in Moroto, at the Lango region, from a semi-nomadic family. His father was a prosperous chief, owner of 120-herd of cattle and married to 9 women, who gave him 43 sons and daughters.  Yet when the father died their descendants could not keep the same fortunate life.  John immediately left school, as he was 16, to bear farmer duties as milking and ploughing, then worked as a cashier in a relative's business and ended up going to the capital Kampala, where he enrolled the police.  His future coach Malcolm Arnold remembered him the first time they met as someone who struggled for one meal a day and lived in a hovel. (2) Even when Akii-Bua started a promising athletics career and was offered scholarships in the USA he turned them down because he had to help his younger brothers. Notwithstanding, despite never going to college, he is often described by their interlocutors as a smart and refined man with exquisite manners. (3)
           In the police, John was introduced to the practice of the sport. Because of his outstanding stretching flexibility, he was oriented to the high hurdles, where he had the chance of receiving instructions from the foremost 400 meter hurdles Ugandan specialist Jorem Ochana. He used to bang his knees, ankles and even his head in the effort of catching the right technique. At that time he was also practising with success other events as sprints, javelin and even beat the Ugandan record in the decathlon. His sportive exploits in the police gained quickly Akii-Bua a place in the national team, where he was to be trained by the young Malcolm Arnold, along with George Odoke.  Arnold, a PE teacher in a Bristol secondary school and part time athletics coach, had accepted an offer in 1968 to take in charge the national Ugandan team.  In Africa, he would collect the first medals of a long and highly successful career, in which he has coached among others Colin Jackson, Mark McKoy and Linford Christie. Yet Akii-Bua stands as the indisputable number one of all of his illustrious trainees: “he had everything: enormous talent, a huge commitment and capacity for work, and a very astute mind”. (2)
Soon Arnold swapped Bua to the intermediate hurdles, which was proved his best event as at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh he finished fourth in the final, despite his lack of experience and having sustained a hernia. (4) After running in 49.7 on a grass track in Kampala, Akii-Bua was invited, along with famous Kenyan William Koskei, for the match Africa versus USA, to be held in Durham, North Carolina in July 1971, which also included stars as Kip Keino, Ben Jipcho or Miruts Yifter. The Ugandan hurdler, introduced himself to the athletic world by winning the race in 49.0,  which was a new Area record and the best mark of the year. After achieving other victories at international meetings, John Akii-Bua arrived confident to Munich Olympic Games. Yet, he was not favoured to win in an event which was thought too technical and scientific for a black African. This honour belonged to defending champion David Hemery from Great Britain and new star Ralph Mann from the United States. Hemery’s 48.1 world record from Mexico Olympics, obtained at the same special conditions than Jim Hines’ at the 100 metres or Lee Evans’ at the 400, was just out of question at the Munich low altitude venue. However, Akii-Bua was thinking differently. The Ugandan hurdler crossed the line first in his heat and also in his semi-final, which included both the Briton and the American.  


  The night previous to the decisive race Bua could not sleep, haunted by images of a Hemery’s glorious victory. The Ugandan, who was wearing a worn out pair of Puma trainers, in which a spike was missing, was assigned lane 1, the worst of all, while his archrivals where running in the centre of the track. Yet he was determined to prove his country could have as good champions as any other. Even after hitting hurdle six, Akii-Bua did not lose his timing: he overcame Hemery at the eight obstacle and resisted his last charge at the homestretch, winning easily in a demonstration of power, stopping the clock in a marvellous 47.82.  Mann won the silver six metres behind and Hemery the bronze. Only another athlete has been able of winning an Olympic final from lane one: Angelo Taylor in Sidney. After his victory, came the arguably most emotive moment of that sad Games, most remembered for those tragic terrorist attacks: Akii-Bua, who had been dancing and waving to friends in the minutes previous to the final, while his rivals were tense and staring blanky (5), showed again his amazing personality by making what it would later be known as the lap of honour: Bua did not stop as he crossed  the finish line and hardly slowed, keeping jumping barriers towards the backstretch, under the cheers of the crowd. An official came to bring the champion to the required doping test but he eluded him and started leaping imaginary hurdles, still full of energy, while his rivals where on the ground trying to recover from the effort. He stated he felt ready to start the race all over again.  
Much has been written about the gruelling training regime John Akii-Bua had endured to accomplish this devastating performance and about his strange technique over the barriers. (3) (5) Uganda could not offer to his athlete the optimal facilities required for his workouts but they happened to have Malcolm Arnold, one of the best hurdles coach in history, and an ingenious and highly motivated pupil. Arnold and Odoke, influenced like most of the coaches of their generation by Arthur Lydiard, set a workout program based in conditioning and  periodization, which Akii-Bua adopted in the hardest imaginable fashion.  
The government had contributed with $150 so the athlete could move to Kabale, where the hills are very steep. In January, Bua started with a preliminary phase of long Cross Country sessions at moderate pace in order to acquire a strong endurance base. Two months afterwards he devoted his workouts to hill resistance: twice a day he used to run up to a 600 meter-hill six times, with little rest, wearing a 10-12 kg vest. By then he had also entered the track, first without caring about times, just emphasizing in the right position of head, arms and body. In April, clock and barriers had been included. John would spread over the track five hurdles, much higher than they are in the races, and would complete 1500 metres four times, always with his heavy coat on.  By May the Ugandan started working the speed, with repetitions of shorter distances as 200 or 300 metres, with and without hurdles. Eventually, he went to Munich, one month in advance in order to complete this last phase of training. John Velzian, the godfather of Kenyan athletics, would simply qualify Akii-Bua’s ferocious preparation for the Olympics as “madness”. Yet he reacted in awe after watching his wonderful performance at the Games.  
 While most of intermediate hurdles jump over the barriers using as leading leg their left one, John Akii Bua was an ambidextrous athlete, who alternated both lower extremities with this purpose. Outsiders considered that jumping technique as being disadvantageous for the Ugandan, because when he led with his right he tended to be thrown a little bit to the inside lane while landing and he finished doing about 10 metres more than his rivals. Some just say he could win, in spite of his technical lacks, thanks to  be trained as a distance runner, (6) the same way Kerron Clement's superior speed makes up for his troubles with the barriers.  However, Bua stated this alternation helped to keep the timing in case of hitting a hurdle, when the left was used as emergency leg. (3) Amazingly, Asian Games champion Ashwini Akkunji, before being suspended, stated she wanted to adopt Akii-Bua’s technique in order to balance the effort between both sides of the body and thus finish the race less tired. The Ugandan, because of his natural muscle-shaped body did not work much in the gym, but the uphill workouts and the vest, which he used to wear for one of his two daily sessions the whole time, helped him building up his stunning leg strength. He also had specific exercises for his left leg, the weakest one, as tiding it up to his head, adopting the barrier-attack position.  
    Akii-Bua was also famously quoted as approaching the event almost instinctively, deciding on the way to take either 13 or 14 strides between two hurdles. (7) However, years afterwards of his Olympic victory, as he was asked about the subject, he stated his timing had been planned since January and was not casual in any way: it was easy to check in every one of his three races in Munich he had used 13 steps for the first five hurdles, 14 for the sixth and 15 for the last four. He also remembered he had needed several weeks of training for adapting to the change after the fifth barrier. (3)     
John Akii-Bua showing all his power over the hurdles
          John Akii-Bua, despite not competing much in the previous seasons, had sharpened his form in order to defend his Olympic title in 1976 in Montreal. However, the African boycott ruined what could had been the clash of the century, against a young Edwin Moses, who ran the distance in 47.63, beating the Ugandan’s world record with his flowing strides, which allowed him to run the whole race taking 13 steps among hurdles. Soon after this, Akii-Bua began a dramatic descent into hell, related to the fall of General Idi Amin in 1979.
            John Akii-Bua belonged to the same Lango ethnic group than the overthrown president Milton Obote.  300.000 Ugandan, mainly Langi and Acholi, were killed in 8 years by Idi Amin’s soldiers in one of the worse genocides of the 20th Century.  Kenny Moore, the fourth placer at the marathon at that same Munich Olympic Games, went to Uganda in 1972, risking his life, to make for Sports Illustrated the most emblematic interview ever to Akii-Bua (5). Moore witnessed brilliantly in his article those sullen years in the African country: the massive deportation of Asian citizens, the continuous roadblocks, the tense situation in the Tanzanian border with soldiers everywhere… However, Amin, a famous boxer himself, welcomed as a hero the Langi Olympic champion. Akii-Bua was promoted in the police institution, was offered a house and a car and a street was named after him. Bua was blamed for closing his eyes for years to that bloodthirsty regime, which had even murdered some of his brothers. This dictatorship he would later describe as “Africa’s most unspeakable atrocity.” (2) In fact, Amin would not dare to kill such popular personality but would restrict his freedom in the following years: Bua was occasionally under arrest; her wife and children had to stay in the country when he was competing at international meetings, fearing he would defect; he was not allowed for training trips to Germany. It reached a point where all he could do was “staying at home listening to Diana Ross records.” (8)       
          As Tanzanian troops with the addition of Ugandan dissidents entered Kampala in 1979, overthrowing Idi Amin government, Akii-Bua fled to Kenya with his pregnant wife and three children, fearing for his life. Because of the stress, the baby was born prematurely and died. Bua had no money to afford the burial. He ended up in a refugee camp, where he was recognised for an international reporter, who filmed him. After seeing the footage, the West German embassy and Puma shoes company could rescue the former Olympic champion. Akii-Bua and his family flied to Germany, where he was offered a job at Puma's marketing department. (2) In 1983, He returned to the democratic Uganda, becoming a coach in the police and the national team. Still he competed at 1980 and 1984 Olympics, but was not anymore in his prime. John Akii-Bua died in relative poverty in 1997 in Mulago Hospital in Kampala, suffering from abdominal pains, probably ocasioned by cirrhosis disease.
 11 years afterwards a documentary about his life and athletic career called “The John Akii-Bua story: an African tragedy” was released by the BBC, under Dan Gordon's direction. (1) (2) The film is mainly based in 12 handwritten autobiographical pieces of paper which Akii-Bua handed to former coach Malcolm Arnold in the eightees. It features the same Arnold, Kriss Akabussi and Edwin Moses. The film will be soon premiered in Uganda and maybe it will help vindicate in his home country this awesome hurdler who, as for now, is a long forgotten hero. (9)  
John Akii-Bua kisses his Olympic gold medal

domingo, 6 de noviembre de 2011

New York Marathon without Grete Waitz

Grete Waitz crosses the finish line at the 1992 New York marathon in company of race director Fred Lebow
Photo: AFP/ Scanpix
                She was the first female distance runner I ever knew. It was at the 1981 World Cross Country Championships, held in Madrid, which witnessed the historical debut of Ethiopian and Kenyan squads in the contest. Grete Waitz was labelled by the TV commentator as the sure winner of the race, an athlete in a superior level, untouchable at the distance. Indeed she displayed a masterful demonstration of running, a supreme long ride on her own, to romp home unopposed and grab her fourth consecutive Cross Country title. All over the race her looks were characteristically stern and impassive.  She really seemed to come from a distant planet of ice.  Yet as we knew her better with the years she would prove a specially warm and kindhearted human being. 
               Grete Waitz’s tough running personality had been moulded during her winter workouts at the wild Norwegian lands. While most athletes just abandoned training as the snow started to cover the fields, leaving on their own the practitioners of cross-country skiing, Grete enjoyed challenging the wind and the rain. She would instead take holidays as the days would become sunny and warm; too easy for her. Being a full time teacher in a secondary school, she would need to wake up for her runs at 5 o’clock, long before the Northern dawn. Then, during the day, she would attend her courses in PE, Norwegian and English and as the light had again failed she would be picked by her accountant husband Jack for her evening training. This one would consist in repeated charges to steep snow-swept hills, seeing no more than a stride or two ahead, her breath snapping in the 10-below zero air. (1) Jack Nilsen was always a really supportive partner, giving company Grete in her hard workouts in the country and discussing with her programs and tactics.  
            Grete Waitz had been the heir of a fecund tradition of distance running at the rigorous Scandinavian lands, mainly in Finland and Sweden, from Paavo Nurmi to Lasse Viren. She had also continued the tradition of strong and independent women in the region, which dated back from the time the Vikings used to be all the time out, sailing the seas in search of new territories, leaving their wives in charge of house, land and servants. Scandinavian women were the first in the world who got voting rights and also pioneered in the 1960s the combat for equality between men and women and the sexual revolution. Grete was a private person, looking for quiet after a noisy day with children at school but at the same time was determined and independent as we see for example as she did not want to accept monetary help from the national federation, in order to keep her individuality and freedom.

Grete Waitz in her younger athletic years
             Women athletes were also struggling to be accepted in track and field competitions at the same level than their male counterparts. At 1972 Munich Olympics, when Grete competed for the first time at the Games as she was 18 years old, only 14 female events were contested, against 24 in the men’s side. Especially women who excelled in long distances were clearly discriminated, being the longest held event the 1500 metres. Delicate girls were not supposed to be able of enduring too many miles and were not accepted either in classic marathons. Doris Brown Heritage, who was a five time World Cross Country champion as Grete, between 1967 and 1971, was one of many women whose talent was wasted: she was forced to run the 800 metres distance at Mexico Olympics, when she was a potential marathon runner. It is also worth mentioning the amazing story of American pioneer Kathrine Switzer, who challenged the all-male tradition in 1967 Boston marathon, getting a number entry, after misleading the organisers by registering with her initials (K. V. Switzer). Boston official Jock Semple tried to remove her form the race physically, but the competitors helped Switzer out so she could reach the finish line. Eventually she was suspended by her national athletics federation, after being found guilty of up to four different infractions. (2)

Some of the female entries at the 1972 Boston marathon, the first time women were allowed in the race
            Grete Waitz, who had entered athletics, inspired by neighbour javelin phenomenon Terje Pedersen, had started with the sprints but quickly moved to longer distances, feeling she was growing stronger but not faster. By the time she was in her twenties the longest Olympic available events did not suffice her anymore. She achieved a bronze medal at the 1500 metres at the 1974 European Championships and another one at the 3000 specialty four years later, noting she had endurance but lacked a kick which could match the ones of stars Lyudmila Bragina, Gunhild Hoffmeister, Tatyana Kazankina or Svetlana Ulmasova. At the Montreal Olympics she could not go further than the semi-finals and, despite breaking twice the world record at the 3000 metres, she was about to quit sport and only her husband encouragement made her continue. Then she won her first major title at the 1977 World Cup in Düsseldorf, beating for the first time at this level Lyudmila Bragina, who would retire soon afterwards, and also came her five victories at the World Cross Country, beginning in 1978. At the only long distance global championship women were allowed, Grete got revenge of Kazankina, Ulmasova or Marasescu. Only Romanian Maricica Puica, who became in Los Angeles the first 3000 metres Olympic champion, could beat her in natural environment at the 1982 and 1984 editions. By then Grete Waitz had also become an outstanding marathon specialist.
             Prior to her marathon debut, Grete Waitz had run the 1500 metres in 4:00.55, the 3000 in 8.31.8 (the second best mark at the time) and the 10 kilometres on the road in 31:15.4 (a world record which some years later would improve further to 30.59). With such credentials, which still sound stunning 30 years later, that 25-year-old jewel nowadays would have quickly moved to the marathon. Yet back in 1978 things were not as simple. New York marathon had just been launched in 1970.  Only 55 men had finished that race, with about 100 spectators watching them. The race was growing slowly in popularity, lagging Boston and Fukuoka classics. Women were included in 1971, with Beth Bonner getting the triumph. Boston did so one year later. Then Fred Lebow, co-founder and director of New York City marathon had the idea of inviting Norwegian track star Grete Waitz for the 1978 edition.

            Grete had never run straight that distance in her life, not even in training. She had not even tried a half-marathon and was really hard to be persuaded. Her husband Jack and former track champion Knut Kvalheim got her on the plane to the Big Apple race. She was given the anonymous number 1173F and was supposed to act just as a pacemaker. (3) Grete had not endeavoured her workouts to specific marathon preparation and travelled mainly to visit the town in what was called a second honey moon. In the race, the debutant trailed cautiously German Christa Vahlensieck, the then record holder with 2:34:48, not launching her attack until 10 miles to go. Eventually, Grete crossed the line first, improving the world best in more than 2 minutes (2:32:30). Yet she finished exhausted and half-injured. Indeed, she reacted furiously against Jack: “I’ll never, never do this again.” She could not run in several days; hardly walk. (4)  
            However, afterwards she realised her performance in New York had been a milestone in her career. Soon she would quit her teacher job and abandon the track to concentrate in marathon workouts. She was back in New York in successive years, achieving up to nine victories from 1978 to 1988, a record in both sex categories, unlikely to be beaten in many decades. In 1979 she would smash again her world record to 2:27:32, being the first woman under 2:30, and the following year she would complete the race in 2:25:41. In three years she had lowered the women’s best in no less than nine minutes, breaking all topics about female limitations and proving they could be as competitive as men. Finally, her long experience in the track in middle distances had allowed her to acquire speed endurance enough to destroy all road records. Grete also shone in London, another young marathon, winning the 1983 and 1986 editions, the former with her fourth world record (2:25:29) and the latter in her all-time PB (2:24:54).  
Joan Benoit and Grete Waitz celebrate together
after the 1984 marathon Olympic final
               Grete Waitz arrival in the American roads was contemporary to the big boom the marathon experienced in the late 70s and 80s. People all around the world started to practise massively jogging or fartlek, for healthy reasons or simple pleasure. Besides women were not anymore ignored by organisers and the media but began to receive identical support than the men they were now running alongside by thousands. (5) Grete contributed decisively to some of these things. (6) She became the face of the Race of the Five Boroughs, which passed from local curiosity to global cultural phenomenon. (7) Just 55 people had completed the race in 1970. In 2010 the number increased to 45.000. On the other hand, in 1978, the year of Grete’s debut, only 8.9% of the finishers were female. In 1988 as she won her ninth and last title the figure had grown up to 18% . In 2010, female made up nearly the 36% of the field. (8) In words of the current responsible of the race, Mary Wittenberg, all the little girls in New York wanted to be like Grete, who never had children but enjoyed to be surrounded by hundreds of them in Central Park. She opened the doors for every upcoming marathon woman and every one recognised the big influence she had had in her, starting by her contemporaries Olympic champions Joan Benoit and Rosa Mota and her compatriot Ingrid Kristiansen.  Her archrival and friend Benoit would call her wisely “the Queen of Hearts”. Paula Radcliffe would even ape her trademark pigtails. In 1985 her heir Kristiansen would become the new record holder with an unbelievable 2:21:06 in London, only 15 seconds better than Benoit in Chicago some months afterwards. No one could doubt anymore about long distance female abilities.  
      Grete Waitz’s performances also influenced decisively the incorporation of the female marathon event in the Olympic roster. The Norwegian became the first World champion in Helsinki in 1983, three minutes ahead of medallists Marianne Dickerson and Raisa Smekhnova, in what she called her first tactical race. (9) However she suffered the biggest disappointment of her career the following year at Los Angeles Olympic Games, not being able of catching up the brave Joan Benoit, who surged in the first kilometres of the race and never relinquished her swift pace, despite the heat and humidity. Then Grete Waitz showed all her grandeur and sportmanship.
             We can see many different kinds of behaviour on an athletics track, depending on the athlete. There is Yelena Isinbayeva who relax reading a book on her own, waiting patiently for her rivals to reach the heights where she usually begins her competition; but there is, also at the Pole Vault, Pawel Wojciechowski who was clapping his hands to cheer Lázaro Borges, as the Cuban was trying to jump 5.95 in order to beat him in Daegu Worlds. Then to lose a competition is not easy to be accepted sometimes: Carl Lewis left the stadium frustrated, after being defeated at 1991 Tokyo Worlds by Mike Powell, who also broke the legendary’s Bob Beamon record in the process. He also had the option of celebrating with his compatriot the best long jump competition ever. Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat always did so, despite belonging to different countries.
            Grete Waitz was not as outgoing and expressive as Haile but her interaction with her rivals was similar to the Ethiopian champion’s way. As she was defeated, Grete congratulated effusively Joan Benoit and both were seen sitting together at the stadium the following day. They shared a lifelong friendship and the same kind of relationship and encouragement was established with the upcoming Portuguese star Rosa Mota. When Grete Waitz started to open herself to the other athletes, journalists and officials, everybody could find out how humble, warm, generous and even funny that woman was. She was really the role model for everybody and not only because of her victories. In words of Amby Burfoot she “gave and gave and gave and asked nothing in return.” (10) After retiring, Grete became one of the most known ambassadors for the sport and was also in charge of many charity initiatives. She ran for the last time the New York marathon in 1992, along with long time partner Fred Lebow, who had been diagnosed a brain tumour, in the most highly emotive five hours and a half in the history of the race. In 2005 Grete knew she was also suffering cancer. Then she helped the creation of Aktif Mot Kreft, working tirelessly for other people with the same disease. She died the 19th April of 2011, the day after the most successful Boston marathon of all time. Joan Benoit-Samuelson, who at age 53 was back at the 42,195 km distance, recalled a gust of wind which helped her late in the race: “It gave me a big push when I most needed it. Looking back on it now, I think it must have been Grete saying: ‘keep it going Joanie, not just today but for life itself.’ ”(11).

Grete Waitz, the athlete who opened the door for every female long distance runner