Sport On TV: Catching up with Akii-Bua, sprint king of Uganda

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The Independent Online

I caught up recently with The Last King of Scotland, the 2006 film based on Giles Foden's novel about a Scottish doctor in Uganda who gets too close to the tyrant Idi Amin. Garrigan, the doctor, was very loosely based on Bob Astles, the military man who eventually went to jail for his part in the nightmare Amin created. Take away the Olympic gold medal and he could have been very loosely based on John Akii-Bua.

One of 43 children born to the eight wives of a local chief – "my handcrafted catapult and sharpshooting made snakes rare on the compound," he recounted in a memoir – Akii, as he was known, won the 400 metres hurdles in Munich in 1972, inspired by Malcolm Arnold, then the country's national coach (he later looked after Colin Jackson, among others). That brought him to the close attention of Amin, the sports nut who had taken over the country in a coup the year before.

As the excellent John Akii-Bua Story: An African Tragedy (BBC 1, Wednesday), demonstrated, the hurdler led a charmed life and he ascended the ranks of the police force.

But the shadows were getting longer, the regime increasingly bloody. Amin had it in for the Langis, Akii-Bua's tribe, and though as a national hero he seemed invulnerable, it was a dangerous illusion. Amin would round up Akii and other high-profile Langis to convince the world he wasn't persecuting them and the Acholi tribe. "Inside you feel bad," Akii said later, "but you have to live. You have to survive."

His mentor at the police academy was dismissed in one of the purges, and three of his brothers were arrested by the dreaded "State Research Bureau", the Orwellian name Amin gave to his hired thugs. The brothers were taken to a camp. Akii later discovered the hut they were being kept in had been dynamited. He would often dream about his brothers, he said later. "But these dreams are never completed because they wake me up quickly."

He eventually smuggled his family out of the country and managed to get across the border into Kenya himself. There, though, his Olympic gold medal counted for nothing and he was put in a repatriation camp. A news crew got in and interviewed him.

Fortunately for him, Armin Dassler, the head of his sponsors, Puma, was watching the news and arranged to get him and his family over to Germany. But his spirit was broken; when Amin was deposed he couldn't go back home because he feared retribution as a collaborator.

Eventually he did, with plans to coach and open a sports academy, but he had no money. He died 11 years ago, aged 47, leaving 11 orphans. He was declared a national hero, and every MP said they would give 100 shillings each to his widow and family. Eight kept their word.

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