Beyond archive footage and the odd interview, not much would be known about the remarkable life of John Akii-Bua without the intervention of the man himself. His childhood, his rise from poverty, his glory set against the backdrop of bloodshed, his ultimate downfall – this could all have slipped away were it not for the personal diaries of Uganda's flying policeman.
It was in the middle of the 1980s, once his short-lived athletics career had come to an end, that the Olympic gold medallist hurdler approached his former trainer, the Briton Malcolm Arnold, with twelve notebooks. For three years, Akii-Bua had committed his life's story to the page. He then handed over his entire existence to the man he trusted the most.
Arnold guarded these documents like a sacred relic. After the death of his protégé, in 1997, the British athletics coach decided to share with the world the life of the man he helped transform into an Olympic champion. Arnold gave the notebooks to David Conn, whom he had met when The Guardian journalist was ghost-writing the autobiography of Colin Jackson, another one of Arnold's athletes.
From the Clay of Rome to the Ali of Atlanta: Fire and flame
Arnold promised Conn the "staggering story" of an individual's remarkable journey to sporting greatness, capped with his descent into hell in Idi Amin's Uganda. The writings of the former Olympian would form the basis of Daniel Gordon's remarkable documentary, The Story of John Akii-Bua, An African Tragedy, co-written by Conn and broadcast on the BBC in 2008. This important work shed light on his intriguing character, telling the beautiful yet sad story of a champion whom time had somewhat overlooked.
Akii-Bua's burgeoning career was ravaged by the twin torments of Ugandan history and international politics. At the 1972 Olympics, this young unknown athlete made history in under 48 seconds with one lap of the track and ten leaps of faith in Munich. But he then found himself a prisoner in his own country, suffocated by Idi Amin's tyranny and then side-lined by the African nations' boycott of the Montreal Games four years later.
His is a story of sweat, blood and tears, seemingly snatched from the pages of a novel: tumultuous, triumphant, tragic – where glory and fame led not to riches and happiness and further success, but ignominy, a battle to stay alive, exile, illness, and an early grave. When John Akii-Bua burst onto the world scene aged just 22, he was already almost halfway through his life. Everything that was good was over, and the worst was yet to come.
'We were – hold your breath – 43 children!'
So his notebooks begin, describing Akii-Bua's childhood in northern Uganda. Born in 1949, Akii-Bua grew up in a small village in the Lango tribal district with his… 42 brothers and sisters. His father, a country chief, had nine wives and "lived a legendary life". It was through this family prism that he first experienced athletics: one of his older brothers, the triple jumper Lawrence Ogwang, competed in the Melbourne Games in 1956.
Growing up, there were clear incentives for the young Akii-Bua to run: "I still remember our father used to race us for sweets, whereby the winner gets more. I was a tall-legged boy but not fast enough to earn the sweets. I was too slow." His father's death, when he was 15 years old, dealt him "the hardest blow I can ever remember. I had to leave school and take responsibility to earn money, help mum feed us."
In Uganda in the 1960s, few children ever crossed the borders of their village let alone discovered what the rest of the planet had to offer. And without his mother's determination, Akii-Bua's trajectory would probably not have differed much from this standard. "Our mother inspired him," his brother, Paul Bua, explains in the BBC documentary. "She said, 'You're a young man. If you stay here, you're going to rot. Go out into the world and look for opportunities to develop your talent.'"
As the country gained independence from Great Britain, Akii-Bua so too spread his wings. In search of adventure, he left his village for the capital city, Kampala. If his lack of education meant he had to settle in a slum, his talent as a sportsman would soon open doors. After shining in a football trial which he played barefoot, Akii-Bua was recruited by the police force, who were always on the hunt for sporty men in good physical condition. The Ugandan system encouraged officers to train and keep fit: a legacy of the British organisation, from which Akii-Bua would benefit. His preference leaned towards football or volleyball, but his gift was athletics.
It would put him on the track towards glory: "My journey to eventual sports fame began when I joined the police track club. With a compulsory rise at 5:45 my strength was beginning to gather and my mind flashed with ideas of what it meant to take. At the Police Championships, I was entered for seven events – and won five."
Enter Malcolm 'Mzungu' Arnold
At the beginning of 1968, when Akii-Bua was still only 18, he started to dream of the Mexico Olympic Games, which were to be held later that year in October. It was around this point when Malcolm Arnold touched down in Kampala. A PE teacher in a Bristol secondary school and part-time athletics coach, the 27-year-old from Cheshire had answered an advertisement in Athletics Weekly. The Ugandan Federation was looking for a national coach with a view to the Olympics. Arnold was called for an interview at Trafalgar Square, got the job and moved to Kampala with his wife and two children. The start of what he later described as "the craziest adventure" of his life.
In Uganda, the Briton discovered another world. He found scrubby grass tracks and an almost non-existent athletics infrastructure light years away from the international standards. In his notes, Akii-Bua described how he and his fellow athletes started to notice a white man quietly watching from the sidelines in 1968. "I kept my distance. After all, I was no star. This gentleman was really our Uganda national track and field coach, named Malcolm Arnold. His name was difficult for us, so we simply called him 'Mzungu', a Kiswahili word for 'white man'."
What Arnold lacked in experience he made up in ideas. 'Mzungu' struggled to be accepted at first. From the edge of the track, where he was content to observe the first days, the athletes watched him suspiciously out of the corner of their eyes. Some even advised Akii-Bua, the most promising talent, to ignore his advice. Arnold had a task to win him over. But in a few weeks, a relationship of mutual trust had established between them. As Akii-Bua put it: "Malcolm Arnold cleverly and skilfully managed to dismantle my imaginary Berlin Wall against him. One by one we started to fall into his stride."
Although there was one stumbling block: a strong all-rounder, Akii-Bua saw himself primarily as a short-distance hurdler. If this was how he hoped to get his ticket to Mexico, his qualification time of 14'30 was just not good enough. He lacked the natural, explosive speed of a sprinter. But he had enough speed, strength, endurance and physicality (he stood 6ft 2in tall and weighed 78kg) to excel in the gruelling "man killer" event of the 400m hurdles. And after initially laughing this off, Akii-Bua was eventually persuaded that this was where his future lay.
The 400m hurdles – the ultimate test
It's no exaggeration when people say that the 400m hurdles is one of the most demanding and complex events in athletics. Although raced over a short distance, it combines aerobic and anaerobic conditions with the same level of demand. It requires speed, endurance, and hurdling technique along with strategy, precision, great self-knowledge and spatial awareness, total stride control and special concentration throughout the race.
It's lap of the track down to the last millimetre, like a car race where the winning vehicle does not have a drop too much of petrol to cross the line. Take too much from the engine and you run dry on the final straight but preserve it, holding some back in reserve, and you'll fall too far back to be able to keep up. This subtle balancing act in the management of two contradictory forces breeds the age-old oxymoron of athletics: saving yourself while going all out. Negotiating the final hurdles and sprinting the final 100m stretch is nothing short of torture, a mental and physical test as Lactic acid invades the body.
In the words of Kriss Akabusi, the 400m hurdles bronze medallist for Britain in the Barcelona Games interviewed in the Akii-Bua documentary:
It's almost metronomic. And when your lungs are screaming and your legs are gone, you mind still has to be tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, and deliver.
With the rare, unparalleled brutality of the 400m hurdles in mind, it is perhaps not hard to comprehend Akii-Bua's initial reluctance. But after months of procrastination, he accepted coach Arnold's advice – and he would never look back. The Ugandan contested his first 400m hurdles at international level at the Commonwealth Games in 1970. In Edinburgh, with Prince Philip in the stands, he finished fourth, in an acceptable time of 51"10.
This performance – far from spectacular – went under the radar. But given his total inexperience, Arnold had seen enough to know he had made the right choice. "I was very relaxed after the race and told my coach that I was not tired because I had run with little effort and was left with plenty of energy," Akii-Bua wrote in his books. Mzungu was right: he was a natural.
Akii-Bua's progress was meteoric. At a Kampala league meeting in May, 1971 he smashed the African record, becoming the first African hurdler to break the 50-second barrier. Kenyan journalists were in disbelief, one joking that the Ugandan authorities must have used alarm clocks to time the race. Then, a few weeks later, Akii-Bua won in 49"00 during a United States / Africa meet held at Duke University, North Carolina. It was the sixth fastest time ever.
"The alarm clock issue was finally and effectively buried," Akii-Bua wrote. He was now less than one second off the world record of 48"10, set during the Mexico Games by Britain's David Hemery. With the next Olympic showdown just a year away, the competition began to take Uganda's flying cop seriously.
Idi Amin, the bloodthirsty madman
That same year, Uganda experienced a turning-point in its history. Idi Amin Dada seized power on January 25, 1971 following a military coup. The accession to power of this burly, forty-something soldier was initially welcomed both at home and abroad (the West felt that the former president had taken Uganda too close to the Soviet Union). An internal British Secret Service memo which later came to light would confirm this, describing Amin, who had served in the British army, as "a splendid type and a good rugby player". (The same report added: "[he is] virtually bone from the neck up, and needs things explained in words of one letter.")
An accomplished athlete, a very good swimmer, a former national boxing champion, and a passionate car racing enthusiast, the country's new strongman was a sports fanatic. He sought legitimacy and prestige through his athletes, whom he granted both funds and opportunities. In return, they would promote the country, and therefore the regime and its figurehead, on an international scale. Akii-Bua did not care much for politics. He ignored that his country was engulfed in a destructive decade. But it was not long till Amin became a mad dictator thirsty for the blood of his opponents, plunging his nation into division and despair.
Until that point, however, Akii-Bua saw the bright side. He looked rather favourably on the arrival of this colossus who encouraged champions of his rank. The Olympics were approaching. At 22, Akii-Bua was now one of the world's best in his unique discipline. But he would still go to Munich more of an underdog than a favourite. After all, no one outside the country knew that he had beaten the world record during a training session at Kampala's modest Wankulukuku Stadium. Arnold had not spilled the beans. Who would believe it, anyway? Who could possibly run around a dirt track in 48 seconds?
Fast track to the final
Munich – September 2, 1972. Winner of his heats and then his semi-final in 49"25, Akii-Bua comfortably steered the ship of his destiny. The second semi-final was marked by an image that has remained famous: the East German athlete Christian Rudolph, having ruptured his Achilles tendon in the middle of the home straight, fell and took out his cousin from the West, Dieter-Wolfgang Büttner. Neither would cross the finish line. Rudolph, one of the favourites for the gold, never set foot on a track again, his career ending with that fall.
If everything seemed to be going swimmingly for Akii-Bua, he was in reality extremely anxious during the Games. Wracked by nerves and unable to sleep soundly at night, he took to going on long walks around the Olympic Village, often ending up at the disco frequented primarily by athletes who had finished their events. His heats had not even got started before he took to the dancefloor to relax. Here he met one of his idols, John Carlos, one of the two Black athletes made famous by raising a gloved fist on the podium in Mexico. On one occasion, Arnold had to drag his protégé from the nightclub to put him back to bed at midnight.
The enormity of the stakes and the context of the world stage had put the young Ugandan on edge. Arnold had to reassure him. He reminded him of his times, and his steely preparation on the dirt track back home or in the steep hills of Kabale where, with a 10kg weighted vest doing relentless interval training, he had poured an almost inhuman effort into his training for the Games. Akii-Bua was aware of all that – how could he forget? – but at Munich, he still couldn't help flittering between wonder and panic. And on the eve of the final, one last test almost pushed him over the edge.
Nightmare of the inside lane
Shortly before midnight, his coach came to find him in his room. Arnold was carrying four small bottles of German Sekt sparkling wine and a piece of paper. It was the lane draw. "My body hardened as if somebody had hit me," Akii-Bua wrote. Arnold gave Akii-Bua two bottles and, after he'd downed the first to help the bitter pill go down, gave him the news: he had been given the inside lane. A huge body blow. In the 400m hurdles, it's no exaggeration to say that lane one is practically a death sentence.
"Being in lane one is almost like a curse," Edwin Moses, the double Olympic 400m hurdle champion, says in the BBC documentary on Akii-Bua. "It all comes down to physics. When you run around a turn at a hard rate of speed, the only thing forcing you to turn is the pressure put on your outer leg, so you're turning on every step. It takes a lot more force to make that turn because you're travelling at a higher speed and the radius is shorter, so you burn more energy. [Akii-Bua] probably felt he was disadvantaged and knew that he had to run an extremely tight race as his main competitors were in much, much better positions."
Stéphane Caristan, the Eurosport France pundit who ran in the 400m hurdle Olympic final 20 years after Munich, agrees with this assessment.
The tendency is often to tell yourself, 'That's it, it's f***ed, I'm in lane one, I have no chance.'
Caristan should know: he was drawn lane one at Barcelona in 1992 and could only manage seventh place in a legendary race which saw Kevin Young win in a world record time that still stands today. He nevertheless set the best time of his career: 48"86.
"There is an undeniable psychological aspect," Caristan continues. "You have to detach yourself psychologically from the stigma of lane one and stay focused on your own race. The risk is to make too much of a meal of it. You have to let your competitive instinct kick in and rise to the challenge."
While able to hurdle on both legs, Akii-Bua favoured his right – which was just as well, for being in the inside lane made landing on the left leg while on the turn much harder. To accommodate this, Caristan had opted to change the number of strides he took between hurdles – a tactical and technical aspect on top of the physical and psychological tests he had to surmount as well as the 10 hurdles along the way. "You don't have to change the way you run, but for me, it just made sense."
Coach Arnold finds the right words
Back in Munich in 1972 on the eve of the final, Akii-Bua hoped to find solace in sleep – but his night was plagued by dreams of confronting 1968 gold medla winner David Hemery in the final. "His image was a terror for me," he would later write. The next morning, he couldn't eat anything solid for breakfast on the most important day of his life. "I was hit by a coldness and I trembled as I put on my tracksuit." Nervously lighting cigarettes – sometimes from the wrong end, according to Akii-Bua – Arnold kept on asking his pupil if he was alright.
Ahead of what seemed like an insurmountable task, Arnold eventually found the words to soothe him:
Ten minutes before the final, Mzungu said one sentence I'll never forget. Almost an order, which overcame all my nervousness and fears. He said: 'You are in the final. One of them is yours.' He never mentioned the word medal.
In less than 50 seconds, Akii-Bua would discover what he was made of. Talent, technique and hard work might make you run fast, but to conquer a title and take a gold medal, you need a little bit extra – especially in the so-called "man killer" event of the 400m hurdles. As Akabusi explains:
"When you get into the stadium for the final, there is a certain few who have got the talent, the discipline, and this ability, when they step into the arena, when it's do or die, when it's today not tomorrow, to let it all happen, to be focused, to channel it right there and then, and bring home that gold. There are only a few people who have all these constellations right to deliver. John Akii-Bua and David Hemery had all three in the man killer event of the 400 hurdles."
By stepping out onto the track of the Olympiastadion that day, Akii-Bua was about to reveal to both himself and the world that he was champion material. While his rivals looked tense and focused, Akii-Bua waved to friends and even danced on the track ahead of the final. "The last word my coach told me was, 'You know what you have come here for. Do not look at anybody, just run your race," he later revealed.
The world record tumbles
Out of the traps like a bullet from a gun, the reigning champion and world record holder Hemery took off in lane five at an even faster pace than he had managed at Mexico. The Englishman passed the 200-metres mark in full flow, in 22"80, but still shoulder-to-shoulder with the American Ralph Mann. Nothing could separate these two stars after years of training with the best resources on offer. But at the exit of the last corner, just ahead of the final 100m, Hemery had a shock: Akii-Bua, now visible in the inside lane, was still there.
Then the impossible happened: in between the eighth and ninth hurdle, the Ugandan opened up a gap, giving the illusion that he was accelerating clear. A trick of the eye: no one ever gains speed on the home straight of the 400m hurdles – the others are merely deteriorating but at a faster pace. But Akii-Bua somehow managed to retain his momentum and fluidity while Hemery tensed up. Far from the coveted double, the defending champion would in fact be pushed down to third place by one hundredth of a second by Mann – only just scraping into the medals by the skin of his teeth.
In front, meanwhile, and operating on another planet, Akii-Bua flew towards the line. And on – for, in the heat of moment, the Ugandan continued his trajectory even after he had the victory secured, jumping over the first hurdle for a second time before stopping to look up at the big screen. What he saw was astonishing: a new world record of 47"82. The first world record to fall at the Munich Games.
When the 50-second barrier had been broken in 1956, it had taken another 12 years for the record to fall under 59 seconds. But Akii-Bua, who only picked up the discipline two and a half years previously, had now become the first man to run under 48 seconds, whereby taking the distance into a new era.
"He put it together beautifully," Arnold summarises in the documentary. "That's what I remember of it – really being astounded at the margin of victory, which was quite considerable. Especially from lane one. He just did it close to perfection."
The inventor of the lap of honour
While talking to Eurosport, Caristan re-watches the Munich final. He can't quite believe what he is seeing. "He lands on his left leg on the final bend – it's incredible. It's a super fluid race. In fact, you don't even sense that he is at all handicapped by being in the inside lane. He's in his zone."
Anecdotal research estimates that being in the inside lane amounts to a chronometric handicap of two to three tenths of a second, making Akii-Bua's performance in Munich even more astounding. To date, only one other athlete has been able of winning an Olympic final from lane one: Angelo Taylor in Sydney 2000. But it's worth adding that the Ugandan's time (which he set in a two-year-old pair of Puma spikes) would have still won Akii-Bua a medal in the 2019 Worlds – and also in nine of the eleven Olympic finals that followed his coronation in Bavaria.
On top of his gold medal and world record, Akii-Bua's performance stood out for the way he went about celebrating his achievement: after seeing his time on the big screen, the beaming champion jogged down the back straight and jumped over imaginary hurdles one after the other while waving to the crowd. Full of energy and with a spectator's Ugandan flag in his hand, he then continued around the track to the delight of the public, side-stepping an official – all while his rivals were on the ground trying to recover from the effort.
Without knowing it, Akii-Bua had started the victor's lap of honour tradition. After a second lap of the track, he finally found Malcolm Arnold. "His sight exalted my excitement and made me collapse and I briefly wept," he wrote. (It was hard to think that, in 72 hours, blood would be shed on the Olympic rings during the tragic kidnapping of members of the Israeli delegation.)
For the vast majority of the international press, this was the day the name and face of Akii-Bua had been revealed for the first time. In his media appointments after his win, the new Olympic champion opened up about his father's nine wives and the numerous brothers and sisters he had back home. He also revealed details of his brutal training regimes which even he acknowledged were "not natural". The humility and dedication of an unknown champion was revealed to the world.
A hero under surveillance
Not content with breaking the 48-second barrier for his distance, Akii-Bua also became the first ever Ugandan Olympic champion in history – and the first African to win a gold medal in anything under 800m. He dedicated his medal to "the whole team and the whole of Uganda". With a feverish pride for his small country, he told reporters:
I won for Uganda. In the medal brackets [tables] they will say Uganda won one gold medal – they won't write that Aki-Bua won one gold medal.
On his return home, he was greeted like a hero. While congratulating the Ugandan team, Idi Amin said in a speech to the nation: "The name of Akii-Bua must be kept alive for the benefit of future generations." The president organised great celebrations. He awarded Akii-Bua a cash bonus and a car, and named a street after him, as well as a stand in the stadium of his hometown. He also gave him a house in Kampala, which was promptly put under surveillance. For as in any dictatorship, the champion became a pawn in an ongoing game of strategy – an important yet expendable piece to be kept close so as easier to monitor.
The life Akii-Bua returned to in Kampala was different than that which he had known before. For starters, he returned alone, having been orphaned by his mentor. Homesick and mindful of the escalating violence going on in his adopted country, Arnold opted to return to the United Kingdom. What followed would prove him right.
Still three months shy of his 23rd birthday when he won the Olympic gold, Akii-Bua was far from the finished product and struggled honing his technique in the absence of his coach. Had Arnold been able to stay on to fine-tune his star, who's to know how far he could have gone? As it happened, things never got better than the 1972 Games. During the next Olympiad, Akii-Bua's best times tailed off: 48"54 in 1973 when he won the African Games title; 48"67 in 1975; 48"58 ahead of the Montreal Games in 1976. Respectable results, but no longer the stuff of magic.
Events in Uganda did him no favours, either. Amin grew increasingly wary of the popularity of his champion hurdler. Abroad, people knew Uganda because of two people: Akii-Bua and Amin. But, above all, the former. The Olympic champion found himself under increasing psychological pressure. He found himself threatened and overlooked for promotion in the police force. Akii-Bua's ethic tribe were the primary victims of Amin's slaughter, and his national popularity and fame could only protect him for so long. Indeed, three of his brothers had been murdered by Amin's troops the year he won in Munich.
"I think Amin wanted to put me in prison several times, but he could not because I had become too important a personality," he admitted.
A missed opportunity in Montreal
The defence of his Olympic title at Montreal became Akii-Bua's focus. The World Championships did not yet exist (they were not created until 1983) and the Summer Games remained, even more than they are today, the unmissable event in world athletics. But he would never set foot on the track in Quebec. Akii-Bua may have put his head in the sand when it came to politics, but it was politics that doused any dreams of an Olympic double.
Less famous than those of Moscow and Los Angeles in 1980 and 1984, the boycott of the Montreal Games deprived athletes from 25 African nations the chance to compete. These countries were protesting against the presence of New Zealand, who were also playing a rugby series against apartheid South Africa. Uganda only joined the movement once its athletes and delegation had already touched down in Canada. As hateful as the South African regime was, seeing the bloodthirsty Amin take a stance against human rights violations in another nation was hypocrisy.
With Akii-Bua absent, the world was deprived of the prospect of what could have been the most formidable duel in the history of the 400m hurdles: the Ugandan defending champion taking on the American Edwin Moses. The 20-year-old Moses had also entered the sport by unconventional means: thanks to his intellectual prowess. The physics student had won a scholarship to university for his academic, not athletic, performances, and he dreamed of becoming an engineer.
Moses described Akii-Bua as "the ultimate hurdler" and said it was "tragic" that the pair could not compete against each other. Before Akii-Bua had left Canada, the two had met in the stands and the Ugandan had encouraged the American to break his record. "He said, 'If you're going to do it, this is the place to do it'," Moses says in the documentary.
A gifted athlete, Moses trained alone and had only participated in one 400m hurdles race before coming to Montreal. Until then, he favoured short-distance hurdles. This didn't matter. In Canada, he smashed it out of the proverbial park. Flying through the final, he broke Akii-Bua's world record in a gold-medal winning time of 47'64". It was the birth of arguably the greatest 400m hurdles specialist in history.
There's little doubt that Moses would probably have dominated the defending champion, but this duel would have still been worth watching. For Akii-Bua, Montreal would always be a wound that did not heal, but for Moses it was an eternal regret: not to have crossed swords with the man who had inspired him to run.
While Moses was running to glory, Akii-Bua was 10,000 metres above altitude in a plane back to Uganda. When he landed, a journalist friend told him Edwin Moses had won. "Your record is gone," he said. Akii-Bua was still only 26, but his career now seemed to be behind him. He started smoking and drinking, sometimes swigging whisky straight from the bottle. His spirit was broken. He hadn't managed to reconcile his greatest hour of glory with his biggest disappointment, and everything seemed to be out of his hands.
His notoriety at home meant he could not go into exile, but nor could he be disposed of. He was a prisoner in his own country. Gradually, the Olympic champion of Munich fell into oblivion, caught up in the national battle for survival. Idi Amin had become increasingly erratic and callous. Having declared himself president for life in 1975, he was descending into madness. His intelligence agency, the State Research Bureau, was nothing more than a killing squad which began multiplying the massacres. In less than a decade of rule, the regime is estimated to have taken around 300,000 lives.
1979: The war and the flight
By 1979, Uganda was a country in ruins. Cut off from the West, coffee prices had collapsed, and Amin had driven out tens of thousands of the Asians and former colonials who ran most of the main businesses. In a last whimsical roll of the dice, the tyrant decided to invade Tanzania. The resulting counterattack was carried out with the help of Ugandan exiles – mainly guerrilla fighters from Akii-Bua's Langi tribe. It crushed Amin's army, forcing the president to flee in April.
Fearing being associated with the regime despite belonging to the same tribe which had been heavily persecuted by the dictatorship, Akii-Bua also decided to get out. He fled with his cousin, the footballer Denis Abua, a player in the Ugandan national team. They headed to Tororo, on the Kenyan border, where Akii-Bua's pregnant wife, Joyce, and their three children had been awaiting them for two weeks.
Their car pulled up behind a convoy from the German Embassy before being stopped alongside the Owen Falls Dam by the Tanzanian army. This was a roadblock with a gruesome reputation, where Amin had notoriously disposed lots of the regime's victims in the Victorian Nile. Akii-Bua believed that they had reached the end of the road.
"In Kampala, we'd heard of people being thrown into the crashing water. Others were lined up and ordered to jump in. My mind began to race. I tried to visualise how I would die. Were they going to throw me into the water? If so, with tied hands and legs or with my hands and legs left free? I knew they would never find my body, know who killed me or how I died. I thought about my wife and children and could not bear my vision of their lives without me."
He and his cousin considered a shoot-out. But then one of the officials recognised Denis, who said he and John were fetching crates of beer to take back to Kampala. They all agreed to meet later for a drink at the officers' mess. They eventually reached Tororo, another 100km west, where Akii-Bua was reunited with his family. Together, they managed to cross the border. But the trauma of the journey resulted in the premature birth of their baby, which did not survive.
Saved by his sponsor
With no money or prospects, Akii-Bua was filmed a few weeks later in a refugee camp, where he had been interred while awaiting deportation back to Uganda. "I've never felt so miserable. I am an athlete. You cannot imagine how serious the situation is in my country," he told a British TV crew. These images, widely distributed at the time, caused a sensation and would save him.
Learning of Akii-Bua's plight, Armin Dassler, the head of the Puma sports company, his former sponsor, decided to help him out. Dassler personally arranged for his asylum in West Germany where he was given a job in the sports marketing department of Puma in… Munich, of all places. Akii-Bua and his family settled in the same city where he had ruled the world less than eight years previously. He made a comeback in the Moscow Games in 1980. But with minimal preparation and his heart not in it, he did not progress beyond the semi-finals. His time of 51"10 was a far cry from the man who had broken the 48-second barrier and the curtain finally closed on his athletics career.
In 1983, Akii-Bua returned to a peaceful but unstable Uganda, decimated by years of war and civil unrest. Unable to open the sports academy or the retail outlet he desired, he worked once again in the police force and became the national coach of the athletics team – his last link with a glorious past largely forgotten. On the last occasion that he saw Malcolm Arnold, the former apprentice had a gift for his old master, as the Englishman later confirmed in the BBC documentary:
"He came to Wales, where I was working as national coach, and presented me these twelve exercise books. He presented them to me as his life story, all written in pencil, in English. Brilliantly written considering it was his third or fourth language. It was staggering stuff." In those pages were his entire life – from his childhood in his village to his flight to Kenya. He wanted Arnold to safeguard his story for posterity.
Moses: 'Without him, there'd be no me'
Akii-Bua died in 1997, just 47 years old. Suffering from abdominal pains brought on by cirrhosis disease, he had been sick for a number of months and was still mourning the death of his wife, who had died two years earlier. He was survived by 11 children, orphaned without the safety net of a welfare state. Uganda held a state funeral for him.
It was a poignant coincidence that Malcolm Arnold learned of the death of his friend and protégé while in Munich's Olympiastadion, coaching the British team in the European Cup. After training Akii-Bua, Arnold went on to become one of the world's greatest athletics coaches. During a career spanning eleven Olympic Games, he coached several Olympic, world and European champions, including Colin Jackson, the 110m hurdles silver medallist at Seoul in 1988. But no one earned Arnold's admiration more than Akii-Bua, whose remarkable commitment and capacity for work knew no bounds.
"I worked with Colin Jackson for 20 years. I never got that chance with John," he says in the documentary.
Had I been able to work with him for 10 years, I just wonder where he would have ended up. Considering he only really had two proper seasons at it, he did quite well, didn't he? If we could transfer him from his age in the 70s to now, he'd be a winner still.
It was not until 2012 and the coronation of Stephen Kiprotich in the marathon on the streets of London that Uganda notched the second gold medal of its Olympic history. The name of John Akii-Bua then resurfaced, as it had done four years earlier with the release of Daniel Gordon's documentary. Regrettably, it took this remarkable film to pull Akii-Bua's name from obscurity, even in his own country. Especially in his own country, according to his first trainer, George Udeke:
"I only wish people could recall what fame John brought to Uganda. I feel sad because what John should have left as a legacy is excellence in the field of track and field athletics. There should be aspiration for everybody wanting to be John Akii-Bua. He switched on the light in as far as world athletics is concerned. But as time goes, I think people forget, they forget very fast. It is unfortunate that in other countries, they know and talk more of John Akii-Bua than we talk about him in Uganda."
Edwin Moses has not forgotten. The Munich final, which he watched over and over again when he was 17, inspired him and made him dream. They eventually first raced in London on August 31, 1979, when Akii-Bua had belatedly resumed competition. Clearly short of form, he finished seventh, three seconds behind Moses, the winner. But it was Akii-Bua and no one else whom the American hugged after the race, taking him by the shoulder and exchanging a few words.
Moses will always remember that moment.
I had the ultimate respect for him. If it wasn't for him, there'd be no me. He's an historical figure in the history of track and field for ever.
Translated by Felix Lowe
The Essential Olympic Stories: Bob Beamon’s leap of the century
The Essential Olympic Stories: Bob Beamon’s leap of the century