Javelin throwing is highly technical, and it is also stressful on the arms and shoulders. In a region where there is a dearth of internationally competitive field athletes, javelin thrower Justin Arop rose to the occasion and for many years represented Uganda at the All-Africa Games, the Commonwealth of Nations’ Games, and the Olympic Games. In the process he broke the African record. Arop’s national record still stands, and he remains Uganda’s greatest individual field athlete.
Arop’s remarkable athletic talent was evident when he was a teenager. In 1976, at the East and Central African Championships that were held in Zanzibar, 18 year-old Arop won the gold medal with a distance of 68.05m. Arop dethroned the long-time champion John Mayaka of Kenya who had also won the bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1974 held in Edinburgh with an Africa record throw of 77.56m. At the forthcoming East and Central African Championships, Arop would again become the javelin champion (71.04m) in 1977 in Mogadishu in Somalia, in 1981 (74.94m) in Mombasa in Kenya, in 1982 (73.02m) in Cairo in Egypt, in 1985 in Cairo, in 1989 (69.94m) in Arusha in Tanzania, and in 1990 (66.50m) in Jinja in Uganda. In 1989, in the same Championships, the strong and agile Arop won gold with his shot putt throw of 13.15m. The Championships ended in 1990; they were briefly revived in 1995 as East African (Zone V) Championships, but they had lost their spark and were only held for three more years—in 2001, 2003, and 2005.
At the All-Africa Games of 1978, held in Algiers, Justin Arop won gold with a national record throw of 76.94 meters, excellently distant ahead of runner-up silver medallist Ali Memmi of Tunisia (71.28m), and bronze medallist John Mayaka (70.76m) of Kenya. The next venue of the All-Africa Games was Nairobi in Kenya in 1987, nearly 10 years after the Algiers 1978 venue. Arop ably defended his continental title, winning gold with a throw of 73.42m. A meter behind was silver medallist Zakayo Malekwa of Tanzania who was ahead of the bronze medallist George Odera (71.30m) of Kenya.
Arop is still the only track and field athlete to ever represent Uganda at three Olympic venues. Born on March 24th 1958 in the Acholi region of northern Uganda, Arop was 22 years old when he represented Uganda at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. In the Qualification Round of the javelin throw, that was contested on July 26th 1980, Arop’s best throw was amazing. His best distance was 82.68m—a new Uganda record that has not yet been surpassed! It was also a new Africa record! Nevertheless, many of the javelin throwers were ahead of Arop–he was placed 8th and well behind the best Qualifying Round athlete Ferenec Paraqi of Hungary (88.76m). The requirement had been for the first twelve, plus any additional competitors who would throw more than 80 meters to qualify for the Final Round. Arop was the sole African finalist. Marius Corbett of the Republic of South Africa established the current Africa record, of 88.75 meters, in 1998.
The twelve Olympic finalists made their final throws on July 27th. With a best throw of 77.34m, including some fouls, Justin Arop’s ranking dropped to 12th, or last among the finalists. Unluckily, Arop’s final throw was 77.34m, more than 5 meters behind his record-breaking best throw in the qualifying rounds! The winners were gold medallist Dainis Kula (Soviet Union) with 91.20m, silver medallist Aleksandr Makarov (Soviet Union) with 89.64m, and Wolfgang Hanisch (East Germany) with a hurl of 86.72m.
Among the many years that Justin Arop emerged javelin winner at the Uganda Athletic Championships were 1981 (75.90m), 1982 (68.30m), 1984 (64.17m), 1985 (65.22m), 1986 (74.10m), 1987 (65.23m), 1990 (64.48m), and 1991 (66.76m). Arop was also national shot putt champion in 1982 (14.24m), 1985 (13.20m), and 1986 (12.82m).
At the Olympics of 1984 that were held in August in Los Angeles, the challenge was for the top twelve javelin throwers plus all those who achieved at least 83 meters to advance to the Final Round. On August 4th, Arop’s performance amongst the athletes in the Group A Qualification Round was a far cry from his Olympic performance in Moscow in 1980. This time, Arop’s best throw of 69.76m was the worst among the 14 competitors in the Group. Arop was eliminated from advancing to the finals. In the end, Arop’s 69.76m distance placed him 27th overall, just ahead of last 28th and last-placed Mike O’Rourke of New Zealand whose outrageous fouling did not allow him to score at all. The other African competitor, Zakayo Malekwa of Tanzania, who Arop was competitively familiar with, was placed 19th overall.
On September 24th 1988, 30 year-old Arop was ready to throw the javelin at his third Olympic appearance. This time the yardstick was for the first twelve and ties, and all those who had thrown to a distance of 79 meters to advance to the Final Round. There were two Qualification Round groups, and Arop was in Group B. Out of the 19 Group B competitors, Arop was placed 17th with a best throw of 69.10m. He therefore did not make it to the finals. In the end Arop was placed 33rd overall out of the 38 competitors. Curiously, Zakayo Malekwa, again the only other African competitor was placed 34th given his best throw of 67.56m. The winning Olympic medallists were Jan Zelezny of Czechoslovakia (85.90m, a new Olympic record), Seppo Raty of Finland (81.62m), and Tapio Korjus of Finland (81.42m).
On August 29th 1987, at the 2nd IAAF World Championships in Athletics held in Rome, out of the 37 contestants, Arop was eliminated in the qualification round after posting a best throw of 71.76 meters and finishing 14th. The medal-winning finalists were future Olympic medallist Seppo Raty of Finland (83.54m), Viktor Yevsyukov of the Soviet Union (82.52m), and future Olympic medallist Jan Zelezny of Czechoslovakia (82.20m). And in Ulm in West Germany at an athletics meet, Justin Arop hurled the javelin to 75.52 meters on August 6th 1988.
On January 3rd at the Commonwealth Games of 1990, held in Auckland in New Zealand, Arop’s best javelin attempt was 70.74m. It was the best among the African competitors in the event, but it would only afford him an 8th placed finals position. The medal winners were Englishmen Steve Backley (86.02m) and Mick Hill (83.32m), and New Zealander Gavin Lovegrove (81.66m).
Justin Arop was only 36 years old when he passed away in 1994. The Arop Memorial Championships, in his honor, were first held in Gulu in northern Uganda, at the Pece Stadium, in July 2006, September 2007, and April 2009. In April 2010, the family pleaded to the Uganda government to erect a school or a vocational institute in honor of Justin Arop.