John Akii-Bua of Uganda was promoted by the dictator Idi Amin Dada to Assistant Inspector of the Police Force and the main Kampala road named after renowned Welsh-American adventurer-soldier-explorer-journalist Henry Morton Stanley was re-named by the dictator to “Akii-Bua Road.” This was only months after Akii had reduced the 400 meters-hurdles world record to 47.82 seconds at the Olympics in Munich in early September 1972. Among many other things, Henry Stanley is renowned for exalting Uganda as the “Pearl of Africa.” Indeed, Henry Stanley would quite often declare or imply that he was the very first to attach the term to Uganda.
“… ‘Pearl of Africa’… I applied that… term to Uganda… Many… travelers… account for the term by adducing the fertility of the soil and the variety of its products; but the truth is that the term aptly illustrates the superior value of Uganda because of its populousness, the intelligence of its people, its strategic position for commerce, and for spreading Christianity–all of which make it pre-eminently a desirable colony for a trading and civilizing nation like ours [England]” (Stanley 1895: 719-720).
In January 1973, 23 year-old Akii-Bua, still fresh out of Munich and still heavily celebrated nationally, was now in Nigeria in the face of an excited high capacity crowd ready to witness the performance of the first African to ever win and establish a world track record in such a technical and grueling event. The VIPs who attended the track event included Nigeria’s president General Yakubu Gowon. The 400 meters-hurdles that requires speed, timing, and jumping over is still referred to as the “man-killer.”
On January 11th in Lagos at the Second All-Africa Games, in a 400mh semi-final heat, a relaxed Akii took his time and still won in 50.7. He was very confident that, despite the absence of the top world class competitors that he had faced at the Olympics, he would have actually broken his own world record if he had given it the effort and the technique. He remarked, “I ran six hurdles with a 13-strides pattern and then cut down to 14-15 strides in the last 200 meters… at full speed, I would have broken the 48 seconds mark” (AAP-Reuters: 1973).
Akii-Bua would also state that he had learned so much about technique and perfectly timing the hurdles from his encouraging friend and hurdling ace David (Dave) Hemery of Britain who is regarded as one of the best hurdlers ever. In 1968 at the Olympics in Mexico City, Hemery established a world record (48.12) in the finals of the 400mh. Hemery finished nearly a second ahead of the silver medallist Gerhard Hennige of West Germany. Hemery was third at the Olympics in Munich. In Lagos, Akii also told that he was struck with malaria, six months before the Olympics in Munich (AAP-Reuters: 1973).
The finals’ lineup for the 400mh in Lagos notably included William (Bill) Koskei of Kenya who as an immigrant had competed for Uganda and notably won a silver medal in the event at the 1970 Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh. Akii was fourth then. But in 1971 in Durham in North Carolina at a USA vs Africa meet, Akii in winning beat Koskei and others and established a world-leading time of 49 seconds. It was then that the athletics world eyed the apparently relaxed and smooth-sailing hurdler Akii-Bua as a top contender for the gold in the forthcoming Olympics in Munich. Koskei was also regarded as an Olympic medal hope, but he would in Munich finish fourth in the first round heat, and thereby be eliminated. Akii, on the other hand, won in all his three heats, including the finals in which he set a world record.
Unlike the Munich Olympics in which Akii was drawn in the disadvantageous innermost “tight” lanes, in Lagos at the finals, he was placed in a middle lane–which is easier to navigate through. The gun went off in Lagos and Akii burst out fast. He seemed to slightly relax and slow down after the last corner, then suddenly pick up speed. Days later, Akii would remark that he indeed slowed down but that when he looked up in the stands at the jubilant and colorful uniformed dignitaries that included the Nigerian President Gowon, he decided to run faster. He did not have to since he was well ahead of the rest of the field. Akii-Bua won in an amazing 48.54 seconds. Though Akii had not attained his lofty goal of obliterating his own world record, the time would be the world’s best in the 400mh in 1973, and it remains among the best ever ran on African soil. Nearly two seconds behind, William Koskei was second (50.22) in a photo-finish with Silver Ayoo (50.25) of Uganda who won the bronze medal.
Overall, Uganda was fourth at the All-Africa Games in Lagos, and that performance in which the nation won many medals (exclusively in track-and-field and boxing) is still Uganda’s best ever at these Games. Uganda ended up with 8 gold medals, 6 silver medals, and 6 bronze medals, placing Uganda fourth overall behind Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, respectively.
AAP-Reuters. “Ugandan Plans Attempt at World Time.” Canberra Times. January 12, 1973.
Stanley, H. M. “Uganda Railway.” The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art. Vol. 79 (1895): 719-720.