Olympic Champ John Akii-Bua Won No Medals, Only a New Life, Racing to Escape Amin's Uganda
Wearing his medal and the grin of the conqueror, Ugandan track star John Akii-Bua went home to a hero's welcome in 1972 after winning the 400-meter hurdles at the Munich Olympics. His delirious countrymen named a street in Kampala after him, and moved him and his family into a spacious five-bedroom house. Though Akii-Bua could not have known it then, his fame as an athlete would be worth even more in the cruel days to come. During the nightmare reign of Idi Amin, it may have saved him from torture and murder.
The son of a Lango tribal chief (who had eight wives and produced 46 children), Akii-Bua was in many ways a plausible target. Amin, who was a member of the rival Kakwa tribe, was malevolently suspicious of all Langi. When Akii-Bua faded from international track competition in 1976, rumors circulated abroad that he had been either imprisoned or slain. In fact, the threat of violence hung over him daily. "The worst part was the fear of being kidnapped," he says, since Ugandans disappeared regularly without explanation. Akii-Bua's brother-in-law, a bus conductor, vanished five years ago after quarreling with a soldier who refused to pay his fare. "We assume he's dead," Akii-Bua says simply.
Both Akii-Bua and his wife, Joyce, were members of the Kampala police force—he in the uniformed branch, she a detective in the juvenile division—but their jobs were no guarantee of security. Wherever he went, Akii-Bua got into the habit of positioning himself near windows he could leap out of or walls he could scale. "I always had an escape route," he says. "Every time I asked for permission to go abroad, there was suspicion I was fleeing into exile." On the rare occasions when he was allowed out, his wife and children were kept behind as hostages.
Finally, last spring, as Amin's power crumbled in the face of invasion from neighboring Tanzania, the Akii-Buas found their chance to escape. John sent his wife, who was pregnant, and their three children (Tony, now 8, Tonia, 5, and Denise, 21 months) on ahead to a town near the Kenyan border. Then he and a nephew fled Kampala in Akii-Bua's Peugeot. When police began pursuing them, Akii-Bua put the accelerator to the floor. "I told my nephew to break the back window and start firing if they got too close," he recounts. "But they didn't shoot. It was God's wish for us to be safe. In Uganda you can't travel 100 kilometers without hitting cattle or goats or something. But I was driving like a rally driver and didn't even hit a chicken."
After the ordeal Joyce gave birth to a son prematurely; the infant died the following day. Then, while the family was waiting to be flown on to Germany by the Puma sporting-goods firm, Akii-Bua was caught in a roundup along with thousands of other refugees and placed in a detention camp by Kenyan authorities. Released a month later, he returned briefly to Kampala to find his home ransacked and his Olympic medal stolen. A few days later he and his family moved on to Herzogenaurach, near Nuremberg, West Germany, out of which John works doing international promotion for Puma.
Though Akii-Bua is 30 now and was out of training for more than a year, he is preparing seriously to run for Uganda in the Moscow Olympics. Seven years ago at Munich, despite a blister on his foot and a gash on his knee, he set a world record of 47.82 seconds in his event. Four years later an Olympic boycott by black African nations prevented Akii-Bua from defending his title at Montreal. Though Akii-Bua's former British coach, Malcolm Arnold, believes it will be difficult to compensate for the lost years, he doesn't discount his ex-pupil's chances. "Akii-Bua is one of the geniuses among athletes," says Arnold. "I wonder if we will ever know what he was really capable of?"