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

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