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May 31 2011 3 31 /05 /May /2011 01:47

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.

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.

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 notably competed in the 100m and the 400m. On July 17th, Ayaa was placed in the first of the five 100m preliminary heats. He performed reasonably well, finishing in second place,behind Jenny Lamy of Australia, in 11.92 seconds. But the semi-finals, the next day, were not as fruitful for Ayaa. She was placed in the second of the two semi-final heats, and was beaten into 6th place and eliminated from advancing to the finals. Her finishing time was 11.93 seconds. The finals, later in the day, were won by Raelene Boyle of Australia, followed by legendary Alice Annum of Ghana, and then Marion Hoffman of Australia for the bronze medal

There were much fewer competitors in the 400m so there would only be two rounds of competition. On July 22nd, Ayaa was placed in the second of two heats of the first round. Ayaa won in (at that time) an astounding time of 52.86 seconds, a new Uganda record. Alice Annum who had been scheduled to compete in the same round, did not start. Ayaa advanced to the finals that would be contested the next day. But perhaps she had ran too fast instead of just being among the top four of each round that would move on to the finals. Sandra Brown of Australia was second to Ayaa, but she finished a full second after Ayaa. The finals the next day saw legendary World record breaking Jamaican Marilyn Fay Neufville, aged 17, winning (51.02s) astoundingly by more than two seconds ahead of silver medalist Sandra Brown (53.66s) of Australia, Judith Ayaa (53.77s) coming in with a photo-finish third and thereby capturing the bronze medal. This would notably be Judith Ayaa's most renowned international performance! Marilyn Neufville's superb career would be short-lived because of physical injuries and inconsequential surgery. At the 1974 Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch in New Zealand Neufville was 6th in the finals. And at the Olympic Games of 1976 held in Montreal in Canada, she was eliminated in the first round.

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 two of four heats. The first four finishers of each heat would move on to the semi-final. 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 quarter-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.

Ayaa moved on to the Olympics' semi-finals. She was in lane 2, and finished in 52.91 seconds, a 7th place finish. Ayaa had put up quite a commendable performance, but the international competition was formidable, and Ayaa was eliminated in what would be her first and last Olympics competition. The eighth competitor, Christel Frese of West Germany, fell during the race and did not finish.

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.

Jonathan Musere

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