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Judith Ayaa and Athletic Performances: Africa, Commonwealth Games, Olympics, and Pan Africa-USA Meet
Judith Ayaa was born on July 15, 1952 in Koch Goma Sub-County, Nwoya District, Uganda. At a time when African women’s participation in athletics was in its predominantly nascent and amateur stages, young Ayaa became a household name among African women’s stars. Ayaa became the first Ugandan woman to win a Commonwealth Games medal. Ugandan Commonwealth Games female medalists who have followed in her footsteps are three: Ruth Kyalisiima (Kyarisiima/ Kyalisima) in Brisbane in 1982 where she won silver in the 400m hurdles (57.10), gold medalist Dorcus Inzikuru in the 3000 meters – steeplechase in Melbourne in 2006 in which she set a Games record (9:19.51), and bronze medalist Winnie Nanyondo, who was third in the 800m (2:01.38) in Glasgow in 2012.
Judith Ayaa’s career on the track would be short-lived, yet meaningfully fulfilling.
Judith Ayaa’s record at the East and Central African Athletics Championships is incredible. In 1968 (Dar-es-Salaam), Ayaa won gold in the 100m sprint, finishing in 11.5. The following year, in mid-August 1969, Ayaa consolidated and confirmed his formidable victory in the same championships (Kampala) in the 100 meters (11.8), the 200 meters (25.0) and the 400 meters (53.6 ). Jane Chikambwe, considered an athletics legend in Zambia, won silvers behind Ayaa in the 100m and 200m. Here in Kampala in 1969, Ayaa was part of Uganda’s 4x100m relay team that won in 49.5. That same year, based on her personal best time of 53.6, Judith Ayaa was ranked among the top 10 400m runners in the world.
In 1970, in the same ECA Championship (Nairobi), Judith Ayaa was not left behind. The svelte girl with a “Mercedes-Benz” body once again won the 100m (11.8), the 200m (24.1) and the 400m (54.0s).
It was at the Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh in Scotland in 1970 that Judith Ayaa established herself as an international female athlete to be reckoned with. At these Games, Judith Ayaa competed notably in the 100m and 400m. On July 17, Ayaa placed in the first of five 100 m preliminary heats. She did reasonably well, finishing second behind Australia’s Jenny Lamy in 11.92 seconds. But the semi-finals, the next day, were not so fruitful for Ayaa. She was in the second of the two semifinal heats and was defeated in sixth position (11.93) and eliminated from the final. The finals later in the day were won by Raelene Boyle of Australia, followed by the legendary Alice Annum of Ghana, and then Marion Hoffman of Australia for the bronze medal.
There were far fewer competitors in the 400 meters so there would only be two rounds of competition. On July 22, Ayaa was placed in the second of two rounds of the first round. Ayaa won in a relatively astonishing time of 52.86 seconds, a new Ugandan and African record. Ayaa’s final time ranked her eleventh in the world in 1970. Alice Annum, who was scheduled to compete in the same round, did not start.
Ayaa advanced to the finals to be played the next day. But maybe she ran too fast instead of running relaxed, but enough to be in the top four of each round which would automatically qualify for the finals. Sandra Brown, from Australia, was second and one second from Ayaa. The other semi-final heat, won by Marilyn Neufville in 53.05, was more relaxed and tactful.
The next day’s finals saw diminutive but legendary 17-year-old Jamaican Marilyn Fay Neufville win in a world record time of 51.02. Neufville won by more than two seconds over Australia’s Sandra Brown (53.66); it shaved almost a second off the previous world record of 51.7 set (1969) by Colette Besson and Nicole Duclos, both of France. Judith Ayaa, overtaken after slowing down near the end of the race, probably due to fatigue after her unnecessary effort in the semi-finals, was third (53.77) in a photo-finish behind Sandra Brown to take the bronze medal. Fatigue probably cost him at least the silver medal; but the Commonwealth bronze would be one of Ayaa’s most acclaimed international possessions!
Marilyn Neufville’s superb career would be short-lived due to physical injuries and inconsequential surgery. At the 1974 Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch in New Zealand, Neufville was sixth in the 400m final. And in the 1976 Olympic Games held in Montreal in Canada, he participated in the first round of the 400 meters and qualified for the next round, but did not advance to the next round because of injuries.
The next big event for Ayaa would be July 16-17, 1971 at Duke University’s Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, North Carolina. It was the United States vs. Africa and the Rest of the World Meet (sometimes known as the United States and Pan-African Athletics Meet). The event which attracted a capacity audience of a total of 52,000 spectators was a unified African team along with other nations (fourteen nations in total) against the United States. Perhaps the main attraction was Olympic 1500m gold medalist Kipchoge Keino, who was revered and known for his track rivalry with American middle distance legend and 1500m world record holder (3:33.1) Jim Ryun . Here at Duke, Keino aimed to break this world record.
Other internationally acclaimed runners in the competition included Kenyan Amos Biwott (Olympic steeplechase champion) and Tunisian long-distance legend Mohammed Gammoudi. Ugandan hurdler John Akii-Bua of Uganda, who was barely known internationally, was also there to compete.
Judith Ayaa won the gold medal at these USA-Pan African Games in 54.69. Second was Gwendolyn Norman (USA) of Sports International in 55.42, third was Jarvis Scott (USA) of the Los Angeles Mercurettes in 56.0, and fourth was Titi Adeleke (Nigeria) in 59.52. John Akii-Bua won the intermediate hurdles, setting an African record (49.0) that would be the world’s fastest time for 1971. “Flying Policeman” Akii was marked as a candidate for the upcoming 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Simultaneously, Ayaa gained international acclaim though not to the level of Akii. Kip Keino fell short of the world record in the 1500m, but led clearly and finished in an excellent 3:34.7.
John Myers relays the comments of Akii-Bua, here sometimes referred to as “John Akii-Buba” (1971: 6A): “The runners were good… The track is fast. It was not uncomfortable.”
Other notable competitors in the athletics meet were Americans Rodney Milburn and Ron Draper (high hurdles), Kenyans Robert Ouko (800m) and Benjamin Jipcho (hurdles); Steve Prefontaine (USA) and Miruts Yifter (Ethiopia) in the 5000m, and John Smith (USA) in the 400m.
Back in 1971, at the East and Central African Championships held in Lusaka in Zambia, Ayaa was the winner in the 400 meters (54.7). He was also part of Uganda’s gold medal winning relay teams: 4x100m (48.7) and 4x400m (3:50.5).
Ayaa’s next big challenge, the 1972 Olympics held in Munich, Germany, would prove interesting. In the first round, Ayaa in lane two finished fourth (52.85s) qualifying for the quarterfinals. In the quarterfinals, Judith Ayaa was drawn in lane 7 in her two-out-of-four heat. The top four finishers in each round would advance to the semi-finals. Ayaa finished comfortably third and set a Ugandan and African record of 52.68. The Ugandan record, Ayaa’s personal best, would stand for more than three decades. Notably, in these quarterfinals, Ayaa beat France’s 26-year-old Colette Besson, the diminutive surprise winner in the same event at the previous Olympics (1968) in Mexico City. Besson was in lane 3 and her 5th place disqualified her from moving on to the next round.
Ayaa advanced to the semi-finals of the Olympic Games. He was in lane 2, and finished in 52.91 seconds, a 7th place finish. Ayaa had given quite a commendable performance, but the international competition was formidable and Ayaa was eliminated in what would be her first and last Olympic competition. The eighth competitor, Christel Frese of West Germany, crashed during the race and did not finish.
In 1972, Ayaa became a 4-time gold medalist in the 400 meters at the East and Central African Championships. This time in Dar-es-Salaam, Ayaa’s winning time was 55.7. He was part of the Ugandan team that won the gold medal in the 4x100m (48.7).
After 1972, Ayaa’s acting record would become mediocre. He married and began to have children in close succession, and neglected sports. Amin’s tumultuous regime worsened the situation. Athletes have been far less financially compensated for their work and injuries than they have increasingly been in recent decades. Ayaa’s demise was far from glamorous; it was disheartening. Later in her life, while taking care of her two young children, Ayaa struggled and sometimes begged on the streets of Kampala. She would crush rocks for a living. Akii-Bua, also a national teammate with Ayaa in the 1972 Olympics, would be instrumental in drawing attention to and intervening in Ayaa’s plight. She was located and a European benefactor helped with the expenses. Unfortunately, in 2002 Ayaa would die young at the age of 48 or 49, at Mulago Hospital in Kampala. Ironically, Akii-Bua, who was not well at the time, had died at about the same age of death as Ayaa, in early 1997 in the same hospital.
Ayaa’s reign on the women’s track was short but superb and enduring. National and regional trophies and competitions in Northern Uganda have been commemorated with Judith Ayaa’s name.
Myers, John. “Host Winning Score in Pan Africa Meet” in “Carolina Times” (July 24, 1971).
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