The Pan African Games – Durham, North Carolina, 1971: John Akii-Bua breaks the African hurdles record


The capacity crowd of 34,000 (a two-day total was 52,000) at Duke University’s Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, who attended the USA-Pan Africa track meet (sometimes dubbed USA vs. the World), was later the largest to attend a track meet in the southern (southeastern) region of the United States. The meeting from July 16 to 17, 1971 was the first international competition in the area. A unified African team along with other nations (14 nations in total) against a US team was a unique and unprecedented event. Spectators became the largest and most jubilant track audience in 1971. The 38 selected African athletes included Olympic legends Charles Asati, Mohamed Gamoudi, Kipchoge Keino and Amos Biwott.

John Akii Bua

In the 400m hurdles, the results were: John Akii-Bua, Uganda (49.0); Melvin Bassett, a local Durham resident (50.7); William Koskei, Kenya (51.2); Ron Rondeau, Miami, FL (52.9).

William “Bill” Koskei, who as an immigrant had previously competed for Uganda and had won the silver medal for Uganda at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in the intermediate hurdles, returned to Kenya shortly after the tumultuous coup of January 1971 status of Idi Amin. An injured Akii-Bua who had finished fourth in the same Commonwealth venue, now in Durham, proved to be the best 400mh athlete in Africa. Akii-Bua, by slicing a full second off the African record and setting a world best time of the year, had also astonishingly edged runner-up Rondeau by nearly two seconds! And all of this in high summer temperatures (80 degrees above 90 degrees Fahrenheit), high humidity, and on a recently resurfaced track. After Africans won five track gold medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, rumors and suspicions arose that Africans benefited from the high-altitude conditions for which they were allegedly accused. But the Durham meet in a low-altitude environment showed that weather conditions were not important factors for African athletes to succeed against those of other nations.

Eventually, up-and-coming 20-year-old John Akii-Bua from Uganda became the only African to set a significant record in the competition and, after victory in the 400m hurdles, even considered enrolling at the Central University of North Carolina, where he may work with renowned black American track coach Leroy T. Walker and also further his athletic ambitions at Wallace Wade Stadium. Akii was an anomaly in that he was a short-distance runner among the overwhelmingly middle- and long-distance African athletes in competition. He got the recognition.

Akii Buwa [sic], a Ugandan policeman, set an African record of 49.0 by winning the second gold medal for African men. His time was also the best in the world this year, and after observing his impeccable form over the hurdles, American and African track and field officials predicted that he will be a strong contender for a gold medal in Munich next year.” (Associated Press : 1971).

But such encouraging comments about Akii-Bua’s victory in this technical event rarely associated with Africans on an international scale were rare, with the media concentrating mainly on Africa’s middle and long distance prowess. Turning a blind eye and making Akii-Bua’s performance seem less significant was the conspicuous absence from the competition of American champion Ralph Mann (another Olympic medal prospect) who would have deftly challenged Akii-Bua. Mann was competing in Europe.

Kipchoge Keino and other results

Media accolades passed over Akii-Bua, heaping praise on Kenyan legends and victors Kipchoge Keino, Robert Ouko and Ben Jipcho; and on Ethiopian long-distance runner Miruts Yifter who had won the 10000m, but dropped out of the 5000m at the end of the penultimate lap while she was leading, thinking it was the last lap. The 10000m saw the diminutive 5’2″ Yifter finish in 28:53.1, followed by Florida Track Club’s Frank Shorter (28:53.9), third was Minnesota’s Gary Bjorklund (30:05.3), and fourth was Ethiopian Wahib Nasrech (30:34.3).

In the 1500m Kenyan Kipchoge Keino, who was attempting to break the world record (with the help of Kenyan 800m sprinter Naftali Bon running like a rabbit), moved almost a quarter of a lap away from the main pursuers and won in 3: 37.5. , ahead of runner-up and fellow countryman Benjamin Wabura Jipcho (3:43.9) who had won the 3,000m hurdles just an hour earlier! Third in the 1500m was Jim Crawford of the US Army (3:48.0), fourth was John Baker (3:55.2) of Sports International. Africa’s 3000m steeplechase record holder Jipcho had won in 8:45.2, twenty meters ahead of Oregon Track Club’s Mike Manley (8:48.3), Ohio’s Sid Sink (9:00.2) left third and Muhammad Yohanes (9:06.2) from Ethiopia.

In the 800m, Robert Ouko of Kenya won in 1:46.7, one meter ahead of Juris Luzins of the US Marines; with Ken Swenson (US record holder) of the US Army in third place. Ouko would enroll at North Carolina Central University, coached by legendary African-American Leroy T. Walker, who became the first black man to coach a United States men’s Olympic track team and serve as chairman of the Committee. United States Olympic. Walker died in Durham, in April 2012, at the age of 93. At the 1972 Olympics, Robert Ouko would go fourth in the 800m and he would be part of Kenya’s 4x400m Olympic gold medal winning team. Julius Sang, also part of the gold winning team from Kenya, also signed up for NCCU along with Ouko.

Other notable winners in the competition included American John Smith (Southern California Striders) who triumphed in both the 200m (20.7) and 400m (45.7); Rayleane Boyle (23.1) from Australia in the 200m ahead of runner-up and African legend Alice Annum (23.2) from Ghana.

Overall, the US men’s team beat the visiting teams 111-78, with the US women overwhelmingly winning with ease.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Pan African Games Close,” in “The Robesonian” (July 18, 1971).

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