NAIROBI, Kenya, July 29 – When Stephen Kiprotich won the marathon gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics, celebrations reverberated throughout Uganda.
The outpouring of joy brought back memories of 40 years previously when another Ugandan great John Akii-Bua united a divided country amid the horror of dictator Idi Amin’s rule, when he won gold in the 400m hurdles at the 1972 Munich Olympic games.
It was the first time a Ugandan had won an Olympic gold, a feat that was to inspire generations of athletes.
“People got inspired. I was now being compared with John Akii-Bua, a man I never met but only got to know from my teachers in primary school that he was a very strong man,” said Kiprotich, between his training sessions in Kenya recently.
Unlike Kiprotich, Akii-Bua, one of 43 children born in abject poverty in Uganda’s northern Langi district had a rudimentary life, with little of no monetary or sponsorship support that latter-day stars have enjoyed.
His education ended at 16 after his father died, and young Akii-Bua had to leave home from the capital Kampala to look for work and help his large family back home in Lira.
A jack-of-all-trades, Akii-Bua started as a football player after being offered a job by the Ugandan police department.
The athletics bug only bit after the persuasion of Malcolm Arnold, a legendary British-born coach who had moved to Uganda to work as athletics coaching director.
Arnold played a major role in shaping the career of Akii-Bua, whom he described as having a limited experience.
“Of all the athletes I have worked with, I put John number one,” Arnold, now UK Athletics National Event coach for Hurdles and Senior Performance said.
“He came from very poor circumstances, living in a hovel while working as a policeman. We worry today about the technology of drugs; he struggled for one square meal a day. From there, his achievement was incredible.”
After finishing fourth in the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland, Akii-Bua was not a big favourite for gold at the Munich Olympics.
All eyes were on Britain’s reigning gold medal and world 400m hurdles record holder, David Hemery but Akii-Bua, running on lane one sensationally stole the show, eclipsing the Briton on the home straight to win a new world record of 47.82secs.
Akii-Bua returned back home a national hero, and was given a house and offered a senior promotion as a police officer by the then Ugandan strongman Idi Amin, who had seized power the previous year.
But the euphoria was shortlived when Amin’s tribal purge against the Langi and Acholi soldiers for supporting his predecessor, Milton Obote intensified.
Akii-Bua was left shaken when three of his brothers were murdered by Amin’s henchmen in September 1972 and felt his life was threatened.
His state of being was not helped when Uganda joined other African countries in boycotting the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada.
When Amin was overthrown from power in 1979, Akii-Bua fled with his family into neighbouring Kenya and into life of a refugee and destitution.
In a moving documentary of his life, the Olympic legend was filmed in a Kenyan refugee camp, telling reporters: “I am a runner. I cannot tell you how bad it is here.”
Moved by Akii-Bua’s state of affairs, Puma, which had sponsored his running spikes in Munich offered him a job in their marketing department in West Germany.
Akii-Bua returned home in 1983 to find his home in Kampala had been bombed and looted of his precious Olympic gold medal during the civil war which broke out after Amin’s overthrow.
He was offered a position of national athletics coach but he was already a broken man and died a pauper in June 1997 at 47.