Judith Ayaa: Acholi’s Sprinting Hero 

Judith Ayaa established herself as Uganda’s renowned pioneering female sprinter as confirmed by her record on the international track scene. Relatively tall at 5’9″, Judith Ayaa was born on July 15 1952. Ayaa is reported to have died in 2002 amidst poverty (even involving Ayaa crushing stones for a living), and looking after her children that were said to be as many as eight. During the early 1970’s, the names John Akii-Bua and Judith Ayaa were the most prominent among Uganda runners; the two competed in many international athletics meets.

The next major challenge for Ayaa, the Olympic Games of 1972 held in Munich in Germany would prove to be interesting for Ayaa. In the first round, Ayaa in lane two came in fourth (52.85s) thereby qualifying for the quarter-finals. In the quarter finals, Judith Ayaa was drawn in lane 7 in her heat. Ayaa comfortably finished third and established a Uganda national record of 52.68s. The national record would stand for many years, and this would be Ayaa’s personal best. Of note, in these semi-finals, Ayaa beat 26 year-old Colette Besson of France the petite surprise winner in the same event at the previous Olympics (Mexico City in Mexico, 1968). Besson was in lane 3 and her 5th place finish disqualified her from getting to the next round. After 1972, Ayaa’s performance record would become lackluster soon after she got married and started having children in close succession. Her demise was far from glamorous, it was disheartening. But her reign in the women’s track was short but is superb and enduring. Trophies and national athletic meets in northern Uganda have become commemorated in Judith Ayaa’s name.

{div float:left}{module Google Sq}{/div}The record of Judith Ayaa in the East and Central African Athletic Championships is astounding. In 1968, Ayaa won gold in the 100 meters sprint, finishing in 11.5 seconds. The following year 1969, Ayaa cemented and confirmed her formidability by in the same championships winning in the 100 meters (11.8 seconds), the 200 meters (25.0s), and the 400m (53.6s). Similarly, in 1970 at the same championships, Judith Ayaa did not slip behind. The slim young woman with the “Mercedes-Benz” body again won in the 100m (11.8s), the 200m (24.1s), and the 400m (54.0s). In 1969, based on her best time of 53.6s, Judith Ayaa was ranked amongst the top women 400m runners of the world.

During an era when African female participation in competitive sports was in its nascent and prevalently amateur stages, young Judith Ayaa became a resounding name amongst female African track stars. Ayaa is still the only Ugandan woman to have ever won a Commonwealth Games’ medal. But Ayaa’s career was short-lived, likely because she got married early and ended up bearing several children and because she was of Acholi ethnicity…a group (for political reasons) on which Ugandan President Idi Amin kept a constant eye on. Similarly, John Akii-Bua was of the Lango ethnicity which was considered strongly averse to Idi Amin. Akii-Bua’s ethnicity, despite his fame and record, is said to have hindered his fully realizing his potential as a hurdle. Akii-Bua would sometimes be put under house arrest and frustrated from competing internationally.