Home-Training and School
John Akii was born to Lira District northern Ugandan Abako chief Rwot Yusef Lusepu Bua, in the Lango region. Akii-Bua was born into a polygynous family, his father had several wives and Akii would eventually have as many as fifty siblings. The family was semi-nomadic in social structure, Akii herded and protected cattle from predators like lions. This mode of existence inevitably required efficient herding boys to be fast on their feet, to be strong and to have stamina, and to be daring and instinctively quick to react to danger and to keep the herds from straying and getting killed and eaten by predators. Many of Africa’s greatest athletes have come from semi-nomadic and herding families. For Akii, this familial setting informally shaped his athletic abilities.
John Akii-Bua studied at Abako Primary School, thereafter in 1964 enrolled for junior high school at Aloi Ongom Secondary School in Aloi County (Robert Mugagga in ‘Akii-Bua: The Chief’s Son Who Became Athletics King’ in “Daily Monitor”: July 1, 2012). Akii’s stint at a high school education ended in the same year as a result of the death of his father Lusepu Bua which reduced the family’s ability to pay the school fees. The loss also reinforced the need for Akii-Bua to help and contribute materially to his large family. His duties included working in the family’s small general retail store.
Akii looked forward to more lucrative opportunities and at 16 traveled south to the Uganda capital Kampala to be recruited into the national police force. At this stage, Akii’s potential for athletic greatness was not noticeable. His competing in sports had not been significant, and his presence in school had been so short.
Initial Coaching: Police Recruitment and Hurdles’ Africa Record Holder Jerom Ochana
John Akii-Bua started running competitively when he was recruited into the Uganda Police force at Nsambya near Kampala hundreds of miles south of his family home. This formal window into John Akii-Bua’s athletic potential was initially shaped by the police drill which routinely started at 5:30am with physical training and three miles of cross-country running. Akii’s stretching flexibility was notable, the cause for his selection into high-hurdling. Jerom (Jerome, Jorem?) Ochana, a high-ranked police officer who was also the Uganda Police athletics coach and Africa’s 440 yard-hurdles record holder, was conveniently there to train Akii. One of the coaching ordeals involved Ochana placing a high-jump bar a couple of feet above the hurdle to shape Akii into learning to keep his head and body low.
Akii recounts the ordeal to Kenny Moore: “Can you see this scar on my forehead? Ochana… made me listen. I used to bleed a lot in our exercises, knocking the hurdles with my knees and ankles, keeping my head down” (“Sports Illustrated”: ‘A Play of Light’, November 20, 1972). The police training and the coaching convenience presence of hurdling champion Jerom Ochana were likely the most significant foundation for Akii’s path to any future sports glory. Also of significance was that Ochana, just like Akii-Bua, was of the Luo-language and cultural groups of northern Uganda and beyond. This made the communication between coach and promising athlete much easier.
Regarding athletic credentials, Ochana had early in November 1962 won in the 440 yard-hurdles in 52.3 seconds at a track meet in Colombo, Ceylon. This was a tune-up for the forthcoming British Empire Commonwealth Games to be held during the last week of November in Pert, Australia. Unfortunately, in Perth, Ochana did not finish the race in the second of the two heats of the one and only round that would determine the six finalists in the 440 yard-hurdles. However, another prominent Ugandan athlete Benson Ishiepai, who had won in the first heat (52.0) would move on to the finals and win the bronze (52.3), behind Ken Roche (51.5) of Australia and Kenyan Kimaru Songok (51.9). Kimaru Songok is still recognized in Kenya as one of the early mighty and trailblazing athletics legends.
In 1964 Jerom Ochana won in 440 yard-hurdles at East and Central African Championships that were held in the city of Kisumu in Kenya, in quite an impressive 50.8 seconds. Ochana was in Tokyo for the Olympics, this time in the metric 400 meters-hurdles. On October 14, Ochana aged 29 was placed to run in the third of five first round heats that allowed for the three top finishers and next one fastest to advance to the semi-final round. Ochana was eliminated when he finished 4th in 52.4 seconds. In the end, Ochana achieved a 19th overall ranking in the 400mh at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ochana’s personal best (50.5) in the 440 yard-hurdles was attained in 1964.
Malcolm Arnold and George Odeke
John Akii-Bua, soon after winning in four police championship events in 1967, became significantly recognized and was thereafter placed under Briton Malcolm Arnold the new national coach. Malcolm Arnold is erroneously regarded as the one who introduced Akii to hurdling. Evidently, Akii’s chief influence may well have been Jerom Ochana who unfortunately has been widely forgotten and is little mentioned in the literature. And Akii proved early in his running career, that he was and all-round athlete.
Akii, would for a couple of decades, hold Uganda’s decathlon record of 6933 points set in 1971 in Kampala. Starting from the mid-1970’s, less and less attention, and fewer and fewer resources were allotted to the development of field events in Uganda. The presence of Ugandan decathlon athletes waned.
Akii was victorious in the 110 meters-hurdles finals at the East and Central African Championships (an annual event originally primarily involving track and field stars from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia) held in Kampala in 1969. With the influence of the coach Malcolm Arnold, Akii-Bua became convinced that he would reap more rewards as a 400 meters-hurdler. In the finals of the 400mh at the Commonwealth Games (Edinburgh, Scotland from July 16 to 25, 1970) Akii-Bua struggled with a back strain and hernia injury, was trailing last at the final 100 meters, but still raced in fast to come in fourth in 51.14 seconds. John Sherwood (England) was the gold medallist (50.03), Bill (William) Koskei of Uganda (but soon to return to and compete for his native Kenya) second (50.15), and Kipkemboi Charles Yego of Kenya third (50.19).
Arnold would coach Akii into being more skillful and consistent at timing the hurdles. Also, in preparation for the Olympics, Akii while wearing a weighted vest would go through a trying regimen of short- and middle-distance running repetitions with the hurdles mounted inches higher than the conventional length! Akii, also just prior to the Olympics in Munich in 1972 where he won gold while running in the tight lane one and lowered the world record to 47.82 seconds, would move down to southwestern Uganda where he would cross-country train at high-altitude in often pouring rain conditions. Even after decades, coaches and hurdlers look back to Akii’s unique training regimen with awe and interest. Malcolm Arnold’s coaching stint with the Uganda team (3-4 years) would end soon after the Olympics in Munich. Thereafter, former Uganda sprinter and now assistant coach George Odeke took over as national coach.
Malcolm Arnold has retained most of the credit for coaching and propelling Akii-Bua to Olympic gold. With this practice and resume he went on to successfully coach renowned hurdlers of Great Britain. Arnold had inevitably focused on Akii-Bua given that at the time he was Uganda’s top athlete and Olympic medal hope. Akii-Bua must have strongly influenced Arnold’s focus on hurdles. But did Arnold make Akii great, or did Akii make Arnold great? Perhaps it is a chicken-and-egg question. Both coach and student contributed to each other’s greatness. But home-grown Ugandan Jerom Ochana was the early and main driving force and mentor that Akii-Bua would attribute to fashioning him into a winning hurdler.
Regarding some of the levels, Akii was absent in the top-10 All-Time World Rankings of 1970. But in 1971 he became third after Ralph Mann (USA) and Jean-Claude Nallet (France). In 1972 and 1973, Akii’s leading world performances placed Akii comfortably at number 1. Akii was not as active and prominent in 1974, he missed the Commonwealth Games and he became ranked number 8. He resurfaced to number 2 in 1975, behind Alan Pascoe (Great Britain) and ahead of Jim Bolding and Ralph Mann both of the USA.
Moore, Kenny (November 20, 1972). “A Play of Light,” in “Sports Illustrated.”
Mugagga, Robert (July 1, 2012). “Akii-Bua: The Chief’s Son Who Became Athletics King,” in “Daily Monitor.”