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Where Foosteps led to Cheptegei. In Search of Uganda's First Distance-runners of Note

Where footsteps Led to Cheptegei. In Search of Uganda’s First Distance-runners of Note


The successes of Ugandan distance-runners in recent years, culminating in Joshua Cheptegei’s World records at 5000 and 10,000 metres, caused me to wonder who were the pioneers in that country in these events. Inevitably, a first thought that came to mind was concerned with the influence of the highly esteemed Malcolm Arnold, who went to Uganda from Britain as Director of Coaching from 1968 to 1972 and famously discovered John Akii-Bua, winner of Olympic and Commonwealth titles and World record-breaker at 400 metres hurdles in those years. Arnold also guided the careers of Judith Ayaa and Silver Ayoo, bronze and silver (aptly enough!) medallists for 400 metres at the Commonwealth Games of 1970 and 1974 respectively. 

A report in the issue of the British magazine, “Athletics Weekly”, for 6 September 1969 is excitedly headlined “Ugandan Athletes Rival Kenyans” and features a sprinter, William Dralu, who ran 100 metres in a spectacular 10.1 in the heats of the national championships in Kampala on 8-9 August, and Judith Ayaa, who set a women’s record for 400 metres of 53.6, both of them winning East African Championships titles against the Kenyans on 16 August. Also listed in the results of the Ugandan championships were records for 800 metres of 1:51.2 by an athlete named Kiifa and for 5000 and 10,000 metres by Mustapha Musa of 14:17.6 and 29:10.6. Musa was then a distant 2nd to Kenya’s Commonwealth Games six miles champion, Naftali Temu, in the East African 10,000 metres, 29:54.8 to 30:31.0.  

Musa’s remarkable 10,000 record ranked inside the top 70 in the World for the year (equal with Britain’s Jim Hogan), and it was that latter time against Temu which seems more in line with his form generally He had ambitiously run in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic 5000, 10,000 and marathon at the age of 21, achieving nothing of significance, and nor did he at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh (23rd at 10,000 metres). Then at the next  Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1974 he was last in the 5000 final (though only one place behind David Bedford !) and did not finish the marathon. 

Even so, those 1969 results had been sent in to “Athletics Weekly” from Uganda by Tim Jones, who had run 3:51.6 for 1500 metres while at Oxford University three years before and so could be expected to comment on anything irregular that caught his attention. Musa, who was only 5ft 4in (1.63m) tall, was to be credited with a commendable time of 14:06.4 for 5000 metres in 1972 but was not among the eight athletes – most notably including John Akii-Bua – who were sent to the Olympics in Munich that year, where Vitus Ashaba in the 1500 metres heats ran 3:45.2 and would perhaps have been faster had he not been involved in the incident in which Jim Ryun fell. Ashaba, who also set a national record in the steeplechase heats at those Games of 8:45.0, died in 1985, aged no more than 42. Musa eventually achieved a 2:23:31 marathon time in 1976, but Uganda was one of the 29 nations which boycotted the Montreal Olympics that year because of New Zealand’s continuing rugby-union links with the apartheid régime in South Africa.  

From 1970 to 1972 Malcolm Arnold had provided “Athletics Weekly” – then edited by Mel Watman – with regular reports and results from Uganda, and naturally these focused on Akii-Bua. When any distance runners were mentioned it was because of the circumstances rather than the achievements, and one off-beat tale which Arnold told concerned an obsessive runner named Abdullah Ssebwami who completed 244 miles in training in six days and then raced 1500 metres on the Saturday ! Echoing the oft-stated regrets of coaches the World over, Arnold commented, “He’s a real fanatic – won’t be told anything”. At the East African Championships in Nairobi that year a Ugandan 2:39 marathon-runner, John Mwanika, was tragically killed during the race when hit by a car.  

Long before Arnold’s time in charge in Uganda a glimpse of talent elsewhere was there for those who cared to look hard enough. Thanks to the researches of African athletics experts Yves Pinaud and Walter Abmayr, we know of a three miles of 15:21.8 by a Ugandan athlete named Lugonyu back in 1937, and there must have been some organised competition in distance events there during that decade and even earlier because a “Uganda (Native) African Athletics Association” originates from as early as 1925, and an annual Championships had been immediately established. The co-founders included the future Sir Sidney Abrahams, who had just that year been appointed Attorney General in Uganda; Serwano Kulubya, a Government minister and Mayor of Kampala; and Dr H.R. Neilson, the country’s Director of Sanitation. Coincidentally. Sir Sidney, who was a brother of Harold Abrahams, had been an Olympic long jumper and Dr Neilson a Scottish long-jump international.

A first half-miler of note before World War II 

Uganda was then a British Protectorate, and encouragement of athletics may well have continued at the highest level as the Governor from 1935 to 1940 was Sir Philip Mitchell, who was said to have been “good at most games” when he was at Oxford University and his father had played for the Royal Engineers in the 1872 FA Cup Final. Sir Philip was progressively-minded but paternalistic in his attitude to the local population, and there may yet be further references in obscure diplomatic archives or Sir Philip’s biography to sport in Uganda during the 1930s. One other known Ugandan performance is that of Yusuf Kironde Lule, who in 1939 became the first sub-two-minute half-miler from Central and East Africa when he ran 1:59.3 while studying politics in South Africa. Lule had attended Edinburgh University in the early 1930s and in later life was a fierce opponent of Uganda’s tyrannical leader, Idi Amin. 

Ugandan athletes eventually made their Commonwealth Games debut in Vancouver in 1954, where Kenyan distance-runners first established a reputation (4th at three miles, 7th at six miles). and had a silver-medallist in the high jump, Patrick Etolu, with Nigerians 1st and 3rd. Another Ugandan, Benjamin Nduga, narrowly missed reaching the 100 yards final, and there was even a 4 x 110 yards relay team (4th and last in its heat) and Lawrence Ogwang was 6th in the triple jump, but there were no competitors at any other track events. Etolu, Nduga and Ogwang were then the three athletes in Uganda’s first ever Olympic entry in 1956. In the next Commonwealth Games in Cardiff in 1958 Uganda was again represented on the track only by sprinters, but in Perth, Western Australia, in 1962, in which year the country won its independence from British rule, Robert Rwakojo came 6th in his mile heat in 4:11.1, which was a national record. He did not qualify for the final, though he was in good company – an equally inexperienced Kip Keino had also been eliminated in the previous heat, having placed 11th in the three miles earlier in the Games. 

Much the greater impact by any athlete from Central or East Africa at those Games was made by Seraphino Antao, who had been born in Goa, on the Indian sub-continent, and won the 100 and 220 yards for Kenya. Otherwise, Uganda had bronze medals at 440 yards (Amos Omolo in 46.88) and 440 hurdles (Benson Ishiepai), while there was another Kenyan, Peter Francis, who was 4th at 880 yards, and the only performance of note at longer distances by anyone from Central or East Africa was by a Tanzanian, John Stephen, 6th in the marathon.

During this decade two half-milers won Ugandan national titles in very respectable times on what may have been grass tracks of indifferent quality, named only as Opitto, with 1:52.0 in 1961, and Nimundo, with 1:53.0 in 1965. Also in 1965 a Ugandan student of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, in the USA, Kenneth Latigo-Olal, ran 1:50.8 for 880 yards. He became a prominent politician back in Uganda and was appointed Minister of Information, but when ousted in the 1980s he resumed studies in England at Bradford University. He died in 2008 at the age of 67 and was the father of 14 children.

The Ugandan records for three miles and six miles in the 1960s were 14:19.9 in 1961 and 29:53.4 in 1963 by Deogratius Rwabugwene These performances were not, of course, remotely close to international class – 47 Britons ran faster six-mile times in 1963, headed by Ron Hill at 27:49.8. Even so, Rwabugwene set his record in Kampala at an altitude of 1190 metres (3900ft), and so his time was worth rather better. At the 1962 Commonwealth Games  he ran only the marathon and was a respectable 11th in 2:42;28, though team-mates George Zebiikire and Vinancio Okwera were among the nine non-finishers. But then so, too, were John Merriman, Alastair Wood and Bruce Kidd. 

At the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica, Robert Rwakojo went out in the 880 yards semi-finals in 1:51.56 and was 9th of 12 in the mile final in an excellent 4:03.13. Inevitably, as Kip Keino won the latter event in 3:57.35, Rwakojo was largely overlooked,  though at the halfway mark he had had the audacity to be only three yards behind Keino (1:58.7). Significantly, Rwakojo was the one other African mile finalist, and his country’s sole placings otherwise in Kingston were merely 8th in the 4 x 440 yards relay and 12th in the triple jump. 

Political turmoil takes its toll

One wonders what subsequently happened to these first intrepid distance-runners from Uganda, and there is certainly cause for worry as Idi Amin’s military dictatorship ravaged the country in a reign of terror and economic devastation from 1971 until he was deposed in 1979. Ironically, though, he had given much financial support to sport, as had the police, the military and banks, but all this aid was cut off after his overthrow. As many as 300,000 people were killed, and one certain economic victim among Uganda’s athletics stars was Judith Ayaa, who lost her job in the prison service, was reduced to a life of poverty, begging in the streets, and died in 2002 at the age of 50. A civil war from 1982 to 1988 and conflicts with neighbouring countries caused further havoc. 

Such calamities of past generations are fortunately not forgotten in Uganda, and particularly by a journalist whose admirable watchwords are “freedom and democracy”. He is Muniini K. Mulera, who has been writing a weekly column in the national newspaper, “Daily Monitor”, for 23 years, and in September he scathingly criticised the insanitary and primitive conditions of the main stadium in Kampala, and listed dozens of former athletes and footballers from the 1950s and 1960s, including Rwakojo and Rwabugwene, asking for relatives or friends to respond as to their present whereabouts. Mr Mulera wrote a heartfelt tribute which strikes a familiar chord: “Giants in their time, now mostly forgotten, few of them still living. However, their offspring and other relatives who know their stories are around”. At the time of writing this article, no further news of the “giants” had surfaced even in their home country. 

Recovery from the trauma of Idi Amin’s rule and later political turmoil has  understandably been slow, and as an example so far as athletes are concerned the 1985 rankings contained in the annual compiled by Yves Pinaud and Walter Abmayr, “L’Athletisme Africain”, show that for the 5000 metres, 10,000 metres, marathon and steeplechase there were only two Ugandans in the continent’s top 100 of any event – and they were 86th and 97th in the marathon. Apart from the obvious nations – Kenya, Ethiopia, Algeria, Morocco – others outside South Africa who had better distance-runners that year were Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Tuniisia and Zimbabwe. In 1989 not a single Ugandan was in any of the top 100s in these distance events, though the next year Vincent Ruguga, who had run in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic marathons, was 25th at Boston in a respectable 2:17:45, though that did not prevent him being made redundant by the Bank of Uganda and within a decade of his marathon record suffering severe ill-health later seeking financial aid to pay his medical bills.

Uganda’s first international-class middle-distance runner was Julius Achon, born in 1976 and thus during Idi Amin’s rule. He had a harrowing childhood, abducted by rebels for three months before managing to escape home, but after winning local races near his rural village he was given a scholarship to school in Kampala. He was sent to the World Junior Championships in Lisbon in 1994, aged 18, and improved sensationally from a 1500 metres best of 3:52 to win the title in 3:39.78. Then he was recruited by George Mason University, in the USA, where the 1987 1500 metres World champion from Somalia, Abdi Bile, had studied; Achon ran 1:44.55 for 800 metres in 1996 and 3:35.68 for 1500 metres in 1997 and 3:55.38 for the mile in 1999. After retirement from competition, he set up the “Action Uganda Children’s Fund” in Portland, Oregon, which underwrote the building of a medical centre in Northern Uganda in 2012. He was apparently inspired to establish the Fund while on a training run in Uganda when he found 11 orphaned children – some of whom did not even know their own names – living in a bus shelter. He is now resident in Kampala with his wife and family.

Running his whole life, and now for all or nothing

A biography of Achon has been written by a US journalist, John Brant, and the author catches perfectly the mood of a naturally talented young African in the process of becoming a serious athlete: “He had been running his whole life, but he never realised it, was never conscious of it, and never thought about it. Now he ran purposefully and with single-minded intent. It was all or nothing. Either he had to become the next Akii-Bua or there was no point running at all”. Poignantly, though still the national hero, John Akii-Bua had long since fallen out of favour duing Idi Amin’s régime and had fled the country to live in Germany    

Julius Achon’s one other major final was when he was still a teenager at the 1994 Commonwealth Games 1500 metres, in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, where he was 9th, and Uganda did not merit a single mention in the 100 pages or so of national champions and profiles of leading athletes in the ATFS “International Athletics Annual” until the 1997 edition in which the career of Davis Kamoga, bronze-medallist at 400 metres in the previous year’s Olympics, was summarised. A distance-running performance of note was David Yamai’s 10,000 metres of 28:51.1 at Lusaka, in Zambia, in 1999 at an altitude of 1279 metres (4190ft), but that did not rank in the World’s top 200 for the year. No other Ugandan after Kamoga was noted among the profiles in the ATFS Annual until 2004, when Bernard Kiprop was included, having placed 6th and 4th in the African Championships 5000 and 10,000 metres. Kiprop, who was previously known as Boniface Toroitich, had progressed precociously from times of 14:06.93 and 28:45.76 in 2001 to 13:16.21 and 27:15.88 in 2003, still aged only 18. 

In the next year’s Annual a first woman distance-runner, Dorcus Inzikuru, profile Her father, Jackson Luluwa, has been described as “a leading distance-runner in Uganda” and would no doubt have as interesting and maybe harrowing life story to tell s had Julius Achon. Luluwa and his wife had a house built for them by their daughter from her earnings as a World champion professional athlete living in Italy, and Mr Luluwa did not even own a bicycle at the time of her gold-medal success.

Uganda’s gold-medallists at major Games and Championships, Distance events

2005 World Championships: Dorcus Inzikuru, 3000 metres steeplechase (women)

2006 African Championships: Moses Kipsiro, 10,000 metres

2006 Commonwealth Games: Bernard Kiprop, 10,000 metres

2006 Commonwealth Games: Dorcus Inzikuru, 3000 metres steeplechase (women) 

2007 African Games: Moses Kipsiro, 5000 metres

2010 Commonwealth Games; Moses Kipsiro, 5000 metres

2011 African Games: Moses Kipsiro, 5000 metres

2012 Olympic Games; Stephen Kiprotich, Marathon

2013 World Championships: Stephen Kiprotich, Marathon

2014 Commonwealth Games: Moses Kipsiro, 10,000 metres

2018 Commonwealth Games: Joshua Cheptegei, 5000 metres

2018 Commonwealth Games: Joshua Cheptegei, 10,000 metres

2019 World Cross-Country Championships: Joshua Cheptegei + Team event (Joshua Cheptegei, Jacob Kiplimo, Thomas Ayeko, Joel Ayeko, Albert Chemutai, Maxwell Rotich – note Chemutai and Rotch were non-scorers).  

2019 World Championships: Joshua Cheptegei, 10,000 metres

This article is intended as an overview of Uganda’s distance-running history and not a catalogue of achievements. In any case, data from such an oft-troubled country is sparse until the late 1980s, but there are still rather more unanswered questions than I would like in such an inquiry, and maybe there’s a reader who knows more.  

Note: Uganda is a land-locked nation at an average altitude of 1100 metres (3600ft) to the west of Kenya and became independent from British rule in 1962. The current population is 42.7 million and the president has been in power since 1986. “The Boy Who Runs: The Odyssey of Julius Achon”, by a US author, John Brant, was published by Ballantine Books in 2016. A biography of Sir Philip Mitchell, Governor of Uganda, was published in 1992. The author was Richard Frost and the evocative title was “Enigmatic Proconsul: Sir Philip Mitchell and the Twilight of Empire”. 




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