Amos Omolo, born in 1937, was a Kenyan immigrant running for Uganda, a well-built 5’10” sprinter (100m, 200m, 400m and the relays). John Akii-Bua, born roughly a decade later in 1949, was an indigenous northern Ugandan, a sprinter, a javelin thrower, a decathlete; and for the most part a hurdler, 400m and 4x400m relay runner. Akii-Bua at 6’2″ was of a lean and well-muscled build. Both Omolo and Akii-Bua were of the Luo language-speaking ethnic grouping of east Africa. Both were policemen. While Omolo was Uganda’s most renowned track star of the 1960’s, Akii-Bua was in turn Uganda’s most significant track athlete of the 1970’s. Akii-Bua’s athletic prowess was discovered relatively early in life when he joined the police force while in his teens. However, Amos Omolo started harvesting his track running abilities relatively late in life, a late bloomer. It was while he was in his mid-twenties that Omolo became a significant international runner; and his personal records were achieved when he was in his early thirties before he soon retired.
Both Omolo and Akii-Bua are significantly remembered for their feats at the Olympics; Omolo especially in 1968 (Mexico City) and Akii especially in 1972 (Munich). At both, the two Olympians ran a full finals’ lap: Omolo in the 400 meters, and Akii-Bua in the 400 meters-hurdles. In both of these Olympic finals, the world record was broken. There were sharp contrasts in the finals’ lane placements: Akii-Bua was in the innermost lane, one which usually slows runners down from taking shorter strides because of the rounder and tighter circumference; while Omolo ran in the outermost lane 8 which while the turns are easier, the runners are less able to gage their position and progress vis-a-vis the runners in the lower lanes.
At the Olympics of 1972, Akii-Bua then in his early 20’s, was relatively young. Amos Omolo in the Olympic finals of 1968, aged 31, was relatively advanced in age and the oldest among the finalists. He was also Uganda’s oldest Olympics participant. In a 400m Olympic quarter-finals heat, Omolo would win in a Uganda record time of 45.33. This national record remained intact for nearly three decades. Akii-Bua’s Olympic gold medal win in the 400 meters-hurdles in 1972 involved the establishment of a 47.82 world record that would stay intact for four years. As a Uganda national record, it has remained intact for four decades. On the other hand, Omolo was beaten into 8th and last place at the 400m finals in 1968. Nevertheless, the crowned gold medallist Lee Edward Evans of the United States had established a new world record that would survive for more than two decades. While Lee Evans here became the first man to ever run a sub-44 seconds 400m, John Akii-Bua in winning became the first man to ever officially run the 400 meters-hurdles below 48 seconds. While Amos Omolo was Uganda’s first Olympic track and field finalist, John Akii-Bua was Uganda’s first Olympic gold medallist and track and field world record holder.
In Mexico City at the Olympics, on October 16th 1968, fifty-five international athletes that were placed in eight heats, were scheduled to run in Round One of the 400m. The four top finishers in each of the heats would advance to the quarter-finals. Amos Omolo won in his Heat Five, finishing in 45.85, a new national record. Four quarter-final heats were ran the next day. Omolo again performed impressively, winning in Heat Two in a new Uganda record of 45.33. The four top finishers in each heat, moved on to the two semi-final heats which would be run later that day. Omolo’s performance in the semi-finals was not as fruitful. The second semi-finals’ witnessed Omolo finishing fourth in 45.52. Of significance, the winner of this heat Lee Edward Evans at age 21 established a new Olympic record time of 44.83. Omolo had narrowly missed being axed from advancing to the finals. The finals were set to feature three African Americans, three Africans, and two Europeans. The next day, October 18th, Omolo was placed in outermost lane in the final. The gun went off, Omolo ran a relatively fast 200m, but thereafter tired and slowed down and seemingly lost hope. He finished last and his time of 47.61 was more than two seconds behind seventh placed Andrzej Baderiski of Poland. Omolo was known to fluctuate widely in his performances, sometimes performing excellently and sometimes performing surprisingly poorly relative to his recent performances. American Lee Evans in lane 6, under pressure from his two fellow Americans Lawrence “Larry” James and Ron Freeman, had won in an astounding world record of 43.86. All three Americans were less than 22 years old, the youngest among the finalists.
As for Akii-Bua at the Olympics in the 400mh in 1972, in all three rounds including the finals, he ran in either lane one or lane two. In the first qualifying round that took place on August 31st, Akii was placed in the fourth heat (out of the five) in lane two. The top three finishers of each heat plus one next top finisher would move on to the semi-finals. Akii-Bua won in his heat, finishing in 50.35 seconds. The two semi-finals heats were held the next day. Akii, placed in lane two, won in a relatively fast time of 49.25, followed by world leading Ralph Mann (USA) in 49.53, followed by Olympic champion Dave Hemery (Great Britain) in 49.66. The four leading finishers of each of the semi-final heats would move on to the finals. Next day, September 2nd witnessed Akii-Bua make history by breaking the world record and being the first to officially run the race below 48 seconds. He had done it in 47.82 seconds while running in the restrictive lane one, while the runners-up (same sequence of finishing as their semi-final heat) were in the more favorable lanes 6 (Ralph Mann who won silver with a time of 48.51) and lane 5 (Dave Hemery with a bronze medal finish of 48.52). After four decades, Akii-Bua remains Uganda’s only Olympic gold-medallist and Africa’s only Olympic gold medal hurdler as well as short-distance runner. What Amos Omolo did not achieve for Uganda at the Olympics in 1968, Akii-Bua rose to the occasion in 1972 to cement for Uganda, Africa, and the rest of the world!
Amos Omolo and William Santino Dralu, Uganda’s top sprinters, were selected to run the 100m and 200m dashes respectively in Mexico City in 1968. All the rounds and the final were ran on October 13th 1968. Omolo was placed in the second heat of Round One. There were nine heats and the top three finishers in each heat, plus the next five fastest runners would move on to the quarter-finals. Omolo finished fourth in this preliminary round, posting a time of 10.50. The time would enable him to move on to the quarter-finals. Omolo was placed in the third heat (out of four) of the quarter-finals. The first four of each heat would move on to the semi-finals. Competition was quite intense. Omolo was beaten into 7th place and out of the competition; but with a time of 10.45, he had improved on his previous timing. Also significant was the breaking of the world record, twice in this quarter-final. The world record was set by Hermes Ramirez of Cuba (10.10), and later by Charlie Greene of USA (10.02). In the finals, American Jim Hines would win the gold medal in a world record time of 9.95, the silver would go to Lennox Miller of Jamaica, and Charlie Greene would win the bronze.
The flashback to the 1964 Olympics held in Tokyo involved Omolo competing in the 400m and the 4x100m relay. On October 17th 1964, Omolo was scheduled to run in the third heat (out of seven) of the preliminary round. The top four runners of each heat, plus the next four top finishers would move on to the next round. Omolo aged 27 finished in a time of 47.6 in the very first round, and his 5th place would not allow Omolo to advance to the next round. On October 20th, Omolo was part of Uganda’s 4x100m relay team (with Erasmus Amukun, Aggrey Awori, and James Odongo) that was eliminated in the preliminary round. Uganda’s relay group finished 6th in 41.4 seconds.
As for Akii-Bua, Uganda politically boycotted the 1976 Olympics that were held in Montreal. Akii had been scheduled to compete for Uganda in the 400 meters-hurdles and had been training and competing in Germany and USA. He even ran a 45.82 personal best in the 400m flat in 1976. However, the third week of June, Akii tore a thigh (left hamstring) muscle that would have reduced his chances of winning a medal or even competing at the 1976 Olympics at Montreal.
The Olympics that were held in Moscow in July 1980 were also boycotted by many countries, significantly reducing the pool and strength of the competitors. Akii’s performance had declined, but he qualified to represent Uganda again in the 400mh and in addition the 4x400m relay. On July 24th, Akii ran in the first heat (out of the three) of the first round of the 400 meters-hurdles. He was in the relatively favorable middle-lane 4, a far cry from the Olympics of 1972 where he had been placed in either restrictive lane one or two in all three rounds including the final. Aged 30 in Moscow, Akii was the oldest of the competitors in the low hurdles. In this first round, on July 24 1980, Akii finished 5th in 50.87 seconds. He moved onto the semi-finals given that he was one of the next four fastest hurdlers to the top four fastest finishers of each of the heats. The next day, Akii-Bua, drawn in the outermost lane 8 in the semi-final, finished 7th in 51.10 seconds. He was eliminated from moving on to the finals. On July 31, Akii-Bua was in heat two of the first round of the 4x400m relay. Despite having Africa’s strongest long-relay team in Moscow, Uganda finished 5th (3:07.0) in this first round and was disabled from moving on to the semi-finals. Uganda’s other relay athletes were Silver Ayoo, Charles Dramiga, and Pius Olowo.
Both Akii-Bua and Amos Omolo apparently represented Uganda at two Olympic venues, and both their Olympic finales were when they were in their early 30’s. Omolo was less consistent in his performances whereby he sometimes achieved exceptional times and sometimes was simply satisfactory. But notably, Omolo’s personal best performances were when he was in his thirties. Akii-Bua’s personal best records were attained when he was in his early and mid-twenties. Akii was a determined athlete despite the unfavorable social and political climate of Uganda at that time. Amos Omolo competed for Uganda during a period of relative peace.
The Commonwealth of Nations Games
The then British Empire Commonwealth Games in 1962 took place in Perth in Australia in the last week of November. Amos Omolo was scheduled to represent Uganda in the 440 yards dash and in the 4x440y relay. Uganda’s relay team would eventually not participate in the relay. As for the 440y, on November 26th 25 year-old Omolo impressively won in the third (of a total 6 heats) of the first round, finishing in 47.20 seconds. Next came the two semi finals in which qualifying Omolo was placed in the second one. Here on November 26th, Omolo (46.96) was beaten into second place by George Kerr (46.93) of Jamaica in a photo-finish. The finals, later in the day would be quite a battle between the top three finishers. In another photo-finish, George Kerr (46.74) won the gold medal, Robbie Brightwell of England won silver, and Omolo (46.88) won the bronze. The next runner-up finished nearly one second behind. Omolo emerged as a formidable and promising runner in the Commonwealth and in Africa. This would be Uganda’s only athletics medal at the venue, one of Uganda’s first medals at such internationally significant games. It was also an exciting time for Uganda as it closely followed the granting of political independence from Britain on October 9th 1962.
The 1966 Commonwealth Games would be hosted by Kingston in Jamaica from August 5th to 13th. Omolo would again be placed to represent Uganda in the 440y and in the 4x400y relay. The preliminary round of the 440y would be contested on August 8th and Omolo was placed in the fourth heat. Omolo (48.3) finished second to Martin Winbolt Lewis of England (47.6) and advanced to the semi-finals that would be contested on August 11th. Omolo was placed in the second of the two semi-final heats. Omolo finished 6th in 47.84 seconds and was eliminated from moving on to the finals. He had therefore failed to replicate his presence in the finals in which he had won the bronze at the previous Commonwealth Games venue.
Next for Omolo would be the long relay on August 13th. There was just one preliminary (semi-final) round before the final and Uganda was placed in the second of the two heats. Uganda’s relay team of Omolo, George Odeke (future national coach and prominent sports administrator), Francis Hategakimana (Hatega), and Asuman Bawala Nkedi won in their heat (3:13.4), but the runners in the other (first) heat were relatively faster. The finals saw Uganda turning up a disappointing 8th and last place in 3:13.6. Trinidad and Tobago won in 3:02.8, followed by Canada, then bronze for Great Britain & Northern Ireland. Also, all of Uganda’s 4x400y relay runners had, including Omolo competed in the individual 400y but had not performed well.
Edinburgh in Scotland would be the next venue for the Commonwealth Games, from July 17th to 25th in 1970. Omolo had been a finalist in the 400m at the Olympic Games of 1968, and was 8th. In Edinburgh, Omolo was nearly 33 years old which was at that time considered a relatively advanced age for a sprinter. This time Omolo was placed to to run only in the 100m for Uganda. His performance in the second heat (out of the 8 preliminary heats) was lukewarm. Omolo was eliminated from the competition after finishing 6th in a time of 10.76 seconds. This would be Omolo’s last Commonwealth Games’ performance. Uganda was in contention for the men’s 4x400m relay, but the team of Bill (William) Koskei, Charles Obilu, William Santino Dralu, and Daniel Oboth would be disqualified during the preliminary heats.
John Akii-Bua’s presence in Edinburgh would be the first and last time he would represent Uganda at the Commonwealth Games. This quite contrasted with Omolo’s three-time presence at the Commonwealth Games. Internationally unknown Akii-Bua aged 20 would compete in the 110 meters-hurdles and in the 400 meters-hurdles. On July 17th, Akii was placed in the first heat (out of the three) of the preliminary round of the 110mh. He finished fourth in 14.39 seconds, and advanced to the semi-finals. Interestingly, the winner in this heat and eventual gold medallist was David Hemery of England who had won gold in the 400mh at the Olympics of 1968 in a new world record, and who would win the bronze medal at the next Olympic venue in which Akii would win the gold and break Hemery’s world record. The semi-finals of the 110mh in Edinburgh would be contested the next day–July 18th. Akii Bua finished 5th in 14.43 seconds, coming short of moving on to the finals.
On the same day July 18th, Akii ran in the first round of the 400mh. He was placed in the second heat of the three heats, and he won in 51.82 seconds. Next would be two semi-final heats on July 21. Akii, in the first semi-final finished second (51.94) after John Sherwood of England. The second semi-final was won by Uganda’s Bill Koskei in 51.39 seconds. In the finals that were ran on the same day, Akii (51.14) was beaten into fourth place behind gold medallist John Sherwood (50.03), silver medallist Bill Koskei (50.15), and Charles Yego of Kenya (50.19).
Akii-Bua’s first significant introduction to the athletic world was his 400 meters-hurdles win at the Africa vs USA (USA-Pan African) meet on 17th July 1971 in Durham, North Carolina. Akii-Bua won in an astonishing 49 seconds, a new Africa record, and the fastest time of the year.
At these continental games, Amos Omolo competed at venues in the 1960’s but did not win any medals. On the other hand, Akii-Bua won a gold and silver medals at these Games. The first of these Games were held in 1965 in the capital Brazzaville of Congo. Akii was at the All-Africa Games in Lagos in January 1973, fresh from the Olympic gold and world record setting in Munich in the Fall of 1972. Akii-Bua’s winning time in Lagos was in an excellent 48.54 seconds, nearly two seconds ahead of runners up William Koskei (50.22) of Kenya, and Silver Ayoo (50.25) of Uganda. It was the fastest 400mh time ever recorded on the continent. Akii was also part of the 1973 4x400m relay Uganda team (3:07.21) that won the bronze medal behind winners Kenya (3:06.38) and silver medallists Nigeria (3:06.98).
The erratic occurring All-Africa Games were held five years later, in 1978. This time in Algiers in Algeria, Akii (49.55) was narrowly beaten into second place by Daniel Kimaiyo (49.48) of Kenya. Akii, similar to the previous venue, additionally was part of the 4x400m relay team. This time, the Uganda team performed significantly better, both in positioning and time recorded. In the finals in 1978, the winner was Nigeria (3:03.24) followed by silver medallists Uganda (3:04.20), thereafter Kenya (3:05.92). This would be Akii’s last appearance at the All-Africa Games. The next venue would be in 1987 in Nairobi in Kenya.
East and Central African Championships
In 1968, when the venue was Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, Omolo won the gold medal in the 400m, finishing in 46.7 seconds. Earlier, in 1964, with the venue Kisumu in Kenya, Omolo was part of Uganda’s 4x400m relay team that won the gold medal.
Akii-Bua’s haul of gold medal wins at these champions was bigger than Omolo’s. The championships in Kampala in 1969 involved Akii-Bua winning the gold in the 110 meters-hurdles in 14.6 seconds. In 1971, in Lusaka in Zambia, Akii won the gold in the 400 meters-hurdles with a finishing time of 50.5 seconds. At the same distance, Akii-Bua would again win gold in 1975 when the venue was Mombasa in Kenya. He was timed at 50.2 seconds. At the same venue, Akii was part of Uganda’s 4x400m relay team that won the gold in 3:09.01.
Amid the many comparisons and contrasts, Amos Omolo and Akii-Bua will forever reign among Uganda’s and Africa’s greatest athletes. As Omolo was retiring from athletics, young Akii-Bua was beginning to shine. Akii took over the helm to attain the universal top athletic status that Omolo had strived to but failed to achieve. Akii-Bua has for four centuries remained Uganda’s most significant track athlete.
Murphy, F. The Last Protest: Lee Evans in Mexico City. Windsprint Press, Michigan: 2006.
Phillips, B. Honour of Empire, Glory of Sport: the History of Athletics at the Commonwealth Games. Parrs Wood, Michigan: 2000.