Canada would host the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal in Quebec from July 17th to August 1st. John Akii-Bua of Uganda, who had won a gold medal in the 400 meters-hurdles and simultaneously established a world record (47.82), started building himself up in late 1975 to defend his Olympic title. The preparation intensified in 1976.
At an international meet in Berlin, on August 22nd 1975, Akii Bua won in the 400 meters-hurdles in 49.2. Significantly, here Guy Drut of France lowered the world-record of the 110 meters hurdles, previously held by American Rodney Milburn, to 13.0.
On June 6th 1976 in Dortmund at a meet, Akii-Bua established the world leading time in the intermediate hurdles by winning in 48.58. Frenchman Guy Drut won in the 110 meters-hurdles in 13.59.
Akii-Bua on June 8th 1976 became the main highlight at a German international meet held in Dusseldorf in Germany when he won in both the 400-flat and the 400 meters-hurdles. The competition, though overwhelmingly of German nationals, was importantly regarded as an Olympics-1976 Games’ qualifier. Akii-Bua’s 400mh win in 48.58 was his personal best for the year. Though excellent and a world-leading time then, it would be reduced to 5th best for the year behind the finishing times of Edwin Corley Moses (USA), Quentin Wheeler and Tom Andrews (USA, 48.55), and Jim Bolding (USA, 48.57). The sub-49-second finishes had become more common, and they dramatized the increasing competition in the intermediate hurdles!
Akii-Bua’s win in the 400 meters-flat final at the Dusseldorf meet was in a personal best time of 45.82. It was close to Amos Omolo’s Uganda record of 45.33 established at the Olympics of 1968 in Mexico City, in a quarter-final heat in which he won. This heat included legendary Lee Edward Evans who would eventually win the gold and simultaneously establish the first sub-44 world record. It would endure for nearly a quarter of a century.
Akii in Dusseldorf beat upcoming Olympic relay bronze-medalist German Franz-Peter Hofmeister (46.39), and European record-holder and Olympic finalist Karl Honz (West Germany) who faded into third place. This performance, happening only a couple of months before Montreal 1976, was Akii’s most profound pre-Olympic display of evidence that he was very much in contention for another Olympic medal. Akii trained in the city Dortmund in Germany as preparation for the Olympic Games.
Akii, now aged 26 was expected to ably defend his Olympic title, especially given his commendable build-up for the Olympics in Montreal that included the excellent performances at the two track meets in Europe. Near the end of June while in Helsinki, Akii-Bua was injured and was prescribed a two-week non-training rest by doctors there. They told him that he could still make it to Olympic competition if he was patient.The Olympics were merely weeks away! In the middle of July 1976, regarding his pulled left hamstring muscle, Akii-Bua would declare in the Olympic village in Montreal (Associated Press: 1976: 34):
“I cannot snap my foot down off the hurdle at all. The muscle is very sore. I cannot run, Dwight.”
Dwight Stones, the high-jump world record holder, then recommended treatment by California chiropractor Dr. Leroy Perry who was renowned for treating a sizeable number of world-class athletes; and was in Montreal as part of the medical staff attending to Antigua’s team which was here to compete in the Olympics for the first time.
Legendary American high-jumper and Akii’s friend Dwight Stones would comment on Akii-Bua’s prospects of winning at the Games in Montreal (Berger 1976):
“I am not too sure [that Akii-Bua will win] because Akii has been hurt. If he can’t run up to his best, then I’d pick [Edwin] Moses.”
Edwin Moses, running in “tight” lane 2 had in Eugene in Oregon established an American record of 48.30 at the USA Olympic trials on June 21st; although running as an intermediate hurdler was relatively new to him. Moses had raced in the 400mh for only three months, but the 48.30 was then the third fastest time in history–after respectively the Munich and Mexico City Olympic winning performances of Akii-Bua in 1972 (47.82) and the Briton David Hemery in 1968 (48.1).
“Sports Illustrated,” in mid-July 1976 predicted, as was the case in 1972, that Ugandan Akii-Bua would again claim gold. It was predicted that this time Edwin Moses would be second, and that Quinten Wheeler also of USA would be third. But the editors also added that the injury placed a question mark on Akii.
On July 18th 1976, the 50 year-old English Queen Elizabeth opened the Games in
Montreal. But alas, many African nations including Uganda boycotted the Games. Their effort to have New Zealand expelled from the Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was not honored. Lord Killanin the IOC president argued, among other things, that although the New Zealand rugby team was touring apartheid South Africa, rugby was not an Olympic sport; hence the African boycott was not justified. Other notable African athletes like Mike Boit of Kenya and Miruts Yifter, would therefore not compete.
In Montreal on July 25th in the finals of the intermediate hurdles, 20 year-old Edwin Moses, running in favored lane 4, established a new Olympic and world record (47.63). This was the first time for Moses to compete at international level. In a span of 10 years, Moses would claim many victories, including winning an additional Olympic gold medal, winning 122 races consecutively, and breaking the world record four times. Moses established himself as the world’s greatest hurdler.
From 1976, under Uganda’s dictatorial military president Idi Amin, Akii-Bua felt imprisoned in his native country. He was restricted from competing abroad, and when allowed to get out of the country, his wife and children were barred from going along with him. This was to ensure that he would return to tumultuous Uganda.
He recounts: “I think he [Idi Amin] wanted to put me in jail several times, but I guess he didn’t do it because I was too prominent a person. …Since 1975 I had been trying to get out with my family, but there was no way for us to leave together” (Gelband 1979).
The confusion that would evolve as the Tanzanian and Ugandan liberators (many of who were of Akii-Bua’s Langi ethnic group) approached the capital Kampala gave Akii the risky opportunity to whisk his family out of Uganda into neighboring Kenya. Milton Obote, the president deposed in Amin’s coup d’etat of 1971 was of the same Langi group that became overly earmarked and harassed by Amin’s militia and secret service. In the chaotic confusion toward the toppling of Amin, Akii still managed to arrange for his immediate family to be transported east to Tororo which is near the border with Kenya, as he planned to join them later on March 30th.
Akii-Bua was readily recognizable, so it would not be easy for him to escape Uganda. From Kampala he drove out eastwards, dressed in his police uniform as he would routinely do, so as not to arouse suspicion of attempting to flee. About thirty Uganda army soldiers jumped out of the bushes and some demanded that he drive them to Jinja which is 50 miles east of Kampala. He knew that would end up with him being killed or at best foiling his escape plan. The soldiers let Akii-Bua slide by after he lied to them that he was on duty in the police operations and entrusted to repairing a malfunctioning VHF receiver. To look the more believable, Akii turned around to show his heading back to the capital.
The next day, Akii, accompanied by an uncle and in the company of a west German diplomatic convoy attempted to flee again. While on their way, they saw three carloads of State Research Bureau (Amin’s plain clothes security and terror squad) men. The two relatives jumped into their Peugeot, they were pursued by the SRB squad but managed to get away. The two knew they would easily be apprehended if they fled via the main Uganda eastern town Tororo, so they went to where Akii’s wife was sheltered and hid there for three days. The wife Joyce then walked for six miles through the bushes from the border town Malaba and crossed the Kenya border at Amungurha. Akii was able to drive for three miles through the bushes to the Kenya border town Busia, bribing villagers to show him the way (Gelband: 1979).
Akii-Bua, together with other Ugandans many of whom had been Amin’s aides were detained in Busia for a month. Had he stayed home, he likely would have been killed in the heightened bloodbath that followed the defeating of Amin’s forces in March 1979. After being released at Busia, Akii sent his family off to west Germany; and briefly visited Kampala to check on his house and relatives. His house had been looted, and that included his Olympic gold medal.
Akii’s significant achievement in 1978 was the silver medal at the Africa Games in Algiers. His competing had significantly waned. Akii-Bua did not compete at the Commonwealth Games of 1978 (Edmonton) in which Uganda did not participate, nor had he competed in the previous ones of 1974 (Christchurch).
The massive death, destruction, and malfunctioning during and after the toppling of Idi Amin would not allow for Akii to adequately train in Uganda in preparation for the Olympics of 1980 in Moscow. Now aged 30 and significantly slower, Akii moved to Germany to train and was still determined to win another Olympic medal. He would attempt a last stint at the heavily boycotted Olympics in Moscow.
At the Moscow Olympics, John Akii-Bua’s performance was mediocre and he did qualify beyond the semi-finals in the 400mh. The Uganda 4x 400m relay team that Akii was part of did not fare well, either: the team was eliminated in the first round. Akii-Bua’s namesake John Mugabi won Uganda a welterweight boxing silver medal, the only medal won for the nation at the venue. Many countries, including the USA and Kenya, had boycotted the Olympics as they protested the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Associated Press. “Gold Medalist Injured: Akii-Bua May Miss Olympics,” in “Observer Reporter” (July 15, 1976).
Berger, Dan. “Track Team To Win Only 5 Golds–Stones,” in “Sarasota Journal” (July 14, 1976).
Gelband, Myra. “Scoreboard,” in “SI Vault” (July 2, 1979).