“I started with lots of cross country. I ran hard twice a day then I set up 5 high hurdles every lap, put on my 25 pound weighted vest and ran 1500 metres over the hurdles four times, that was it, every day, building stamina,” - John Akii Bua on training for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.
John Akii-Bua (December 3, 1949 – June 20, 1997) was a Ugandan hurdler and the first Olympic champion from his country.
In 1972, after only one international competition, Akii-Bua arrived at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. His opposition in the 400-meter hurdles included Dave Hemery of Britain, the world record-holder and defending Olympic champion, and Ralph Mann, an American. His only pair of running shoes was two years old, and one shoe was missing a spike. But he was built ideally (6 feet 2 inches and 170 pounds), and he had trained with frightening intensity.
In the six months before the Olympics, his training had included wearing a vest weighted with 25 pounds in lead as he ran 1,500 meters over five hurdles that were 42 inches high — the hurdles for his race were 36 inches. He did four sets of those repetitions, twice a day, every day. He won the Olympic gold medal in 47.82 seconds, a world record, leaving the silver medalist, Mann (48.51 seconds), and the bronze medalist, Hemery (48.52), six meters behind. Then he ran a victory lap and jumped over the hurdles again.
Akii-Bua was the first African to win gold in an event under 800 metres. He was also the first man to break the 48 seconds barrier in the 400 metre hurdles, an event so gruelling its nickname is ‘The Mankiller’. John Akii-Bua, is recognized as inventing the victory lap. After winning gold at the 1972 Olympics in the 400m hurdles he was so overwhelmed with joy that when a spectator handed him a Ugandan flag, he ran around the track waving the flag, the first ever victory lap - beginning the victor’s ‘lap of honour’ tradition.
Akii-Bua’s life would never be the same. Akii-Bua returned home as a hero, and to this day he remains the only Ugandan to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field. But his nation, under the dictatorship of Gen. Idi Amin, was torn by tribal factions and financial crises. Amin was purging the Lango tribe, and Akii-Bua was a Lango. The Government, while celebrating his achievement, soon restricted his movements. It eventually barred him from taking his wife and children with him to international competitions, afraid he would defect. It cut off twice-a-year training trips to Germany. It reached a point, Akii-Bua said, where he had to stay home and do nothing except listen to Diana Ross records.