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Kenny Moore
November 20, 1972
In Munich's gathering darkness, John Akii-Bua's victory celebration was like a ray of hope; so, too, he glimmers in his African homeland. The author, fourth in the Olympic marathon, was one of a handful of journalists allowed in Uganda last month
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November 20, 1972

A Play Of Light And Shadow

In Munich's gathering darkness, John Akii-Bua's victory celebration was like a ray of hope; so, too, he glimmers in his African homeland. The author, fourth in the Olympic marathon, was one of a handful of journalists allowed in Uganda last month

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We drew up at my hotel and Akii joined me for lunch. He carefully read the entire menu while the waiter shifted from one foot to the other. Finally, perplexed, Akii tossed it on the table. "I am best in cafeteria," he said. "I shine when I can see and point." He closed his eyes to visualize the ideal luncheon. "Soup and chicken and beer," he said, and that is what he got.

English is Akii-Bua's third language, after Swahili and his Lango dialect. Occasionally he would pause in our conversations, faced with concepts for which his English was inadequate. The Swahili he spoke in my presence was, by contrast, a torrent. I have no doubt that his is a swift, innovative mind.

I said he struck me as a man having close ties with the land. He nodded and told me about his early life. "My father was a county chief of the Lango district in the north. He died in 1965 when I was 16. At that time he had five wives, but he had divorced three others. We all lived together and moved with my father from county to county. There was Moroto, where I was born, Dakolo, Kwania, Oyam. I have forgotten some of them. Now my family lives in a small village, Abako, on three square miles of land. At one time I had 43 brothers and sisters. Now, I don't know." (Milton Obote, the recently deposed president, was a Lango tribesman. When Amin took over in January 1971, he purged the army of Langi. Those who escaped fled to Tanzania. Akii-Bua had eight brothers in the army at the time of the coup. He said only, "We have not heard from them.")

"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.

"I left school in 1964 and stayed home to look after the cattle. We had 120. I milked them, I plowed with them, everything. In 1956, when I was very young, lions took sheep and goats from our farm, even cattle. But none came when I tended them. I did have a close look at some very big pythons. And we have wild monkeys. They can tease you and throw things. They make you run away.

"Then I was picked by a brother to be a cashier in his bar. I did that until I joined the police in 1966. I passed my training in 1967." Akii-Bua is now an assistant inspector, the equivalent of lieutenant.

" Uganda's first athlete was Lawrence Ogwang, a triple jumper who went to the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver in 1954 and to Cardiff in 1958. And I knew athletes like Patrick Etolu, a 6'8" high jumper, and Tito Opaka, a high hurdler, but I never ran until I joined the police. We had to go to physical training at 5:30 a.m. We did three miles cross-country and exercises. Because I could do good stretching I was selected for the high hurdles. Jorem Ochana was black African record holder in the 440 hurdles and he coached me hard. He put a high-jump bar a couple of feet above the hurdle so I would learn to keep my head and body low. Can you see this scar on my forehead? Ochana was a superior officer. He made me listen. I used to bleed a lot in our exercises, knocking the hurdles with my knees and ankles, keeping my head down."

In the police championships of 1967 Akii-Bua won four events and ran on the winning mile-relay team. Thereafter he was put under Malcolm Arnold, a British coach. The qualifying standard in the highs for the Mexico City Olympics was 14.1; Akii's best was a pokey 14.3. A few months before the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, finding Akii unable to improve over the shorter distance, Arnold had him concentrate on the 400 intermediates, in which he ran 52.3 and qualified. In Edinburgh Akii was eighth into the final turn, finished fourth in 51.1 and entered the hospital for a hernia operation. Six months later he did 49.7 on a lumpy grass track in Kampala and was invited to compete in the Pan- Africa- U.S.A. International Track Meet in Durham, N.C. "The Kenyan officials didn't like me to go," said Akii. "They wanted their men, William Koskei and Kip Kemboi. They said my 49.7 was timed with an alarm clock." Amply motivated, Akii-Bua whipped Koskei and the Americans in 49.0. "I waved to the crowd before the tape. Maybe without that playing I could have run 48.7, 48.8." As he recalled that finish he was refilled with its happiness. "I'd wave again," he said.

In early 1972, Akii-Bua embarked upon six months of training unprecedented in ferocity. "I started with lots of cross-country. I ran hard twice a day. Then I set up five hurdles, high hurdles, every lap and put on my 25-pound coat [a weight vest] and did four times 1,500 meters over the hurdles. That was it every day, building stamina. The police gave me $150 to go to Kabale in the west where the hills are very steep."

"The hills are steep here in Kampala."

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