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The man who discovered John Akii-Bua

By Vision Reporter

Added 11th June 2014 10:08 PM

To many a Ugandan, the name Hassan Sunderani will come off as just another Indian name.

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By Nigel Nassar

To many a Ugandan, the name Hassan Sunderani will come off as just another Indian name. Yet, at the mention of the name John Akii-Bua, even your run-of-the-mill Ugandan will extol the athlete as the man who, against all your typical Ugandan odds, won the country her first ever Olympics gold medal in the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Well, perhaps the run-of-the-mill Ugandan might not exactly summon such detail as the year Akii-Bua caused the playing of the Uganda National Anthem at a stage of such magnitude. They might also not recollect that Akii-Bua, away from bringing home Olympic gold, also set a world record of 47.82 seconds in the 400-metre hurdles race.

Nonetheless, that name Akii-Bua will ring a bell. A bell so loud as to take its listener back to the regimes when sporting in Uganda was national priority. A bell so loud as to remind of the days when the country’s president would rather go on hunger strike if it be the price to have the national team of any sport represent us at an international podium.

That name will surely ring a bell as loud as summon both ecstasy and agony in equal measure. Because the Akii-Bua story, all of it throughout its 48-year creation, is surely an emotional one.

But before Akii-Bua was all the rage, there was this Ugandan of Indian descent called Hassan Sunderani, a hard-to-ignore piece in the athlete’s jigsaw puzzle, a piece that has just resurfaced from the woodworks several years down the road, all the way from Canada.

And given the circumstances, it is not surprising that not much has hitherto been said of Sunderani in reference to Akii-Bua, not even in that telling 2007 Akii-Bua documentary, titled The Akii-Bua Story: An African Tragedy. 

But as it is, Sunderani, who was Uganda’s Chief Sports Officer and General Secretary of both the Uganda National Sports Council and the Uganda Olympics Committee from 1964 to 1971, was the wind beneath Akii-Bua’s wings.

Right there, at the time Akii-Bua broke his virginity in the 400-metre hurdles race, it was Sunderani who gave him the green light, propelling the athlete to greater heights in a victory that thereafter evaded Uganda until 40 years later, when Steven Kiprotich made us relive the moment only recently in 2012.

To be specific, Sunderani, your average next door suburban kid born in Mengo, a township hardly 10 minutes from the Ugandan capital Kampala, actually discovered Akii-Bua.

So how did he discover this great man? Who is Hassan Sunderani in the first place? How come not much is known here about him? Where is he right now?

Hassan Sunderani, the man who discovered Akii-Bua, as he looks like today

Sunderani’s story, and pretty much that of Akii-Bua’s discovery, would easily have been swept under the carpet. But Sunderani’s wife Tazim; his son and daughter Aly and Alyssa, insisted that he document his colossal exploits in the sporting world.

His are exploits that kick off in Uganda from the wild dreams of a little suburban kid chasing after the ball with the rest of the village kids, to exploits of a real powerhouse distinguishing himself from your noisy village boys to turn the world into his stage.

And thanks to wife and children, Sunderani’s life story now enjoys 29 minutes of Youtube time, titled Hassan Sunderani: A short Record of My Life.

Following the trail of this Youtube video, it was a pleasant surprise to trace the real Sunderani through his wife Tazim, who picked up the call to the Canadian number I turned up from the relentless wire searches.  

“Mr. Sunderani is out for his swimming routine; he does that every morning. But he will call you back immediately he returns,” said Tazim, before taking a moment to summon the bits of broken Luganda she was so proud to still remember, several years since she and family left the country.

Sunderani's daughter Alyssa Sunderani clearly delighted at the York University convocation in 2002

Much as I had watched Sunderani in the Youtube video talk of how he discovered Akii-Bua, I wanted to ask the questions myself. With a lack of existing literature about the moment of Akii-Bua’s discovery, I wanted to personally find out about this moment from its mentor.

Like clockwork, Sunderani called back, and a series of phone and Skype interviews kicked off.

From the Skype video on my laptop screen, this man, born June 03, 1931, didn’t at all look 83 – not one bit. You would place him around the early 60s, courtesy of a brisk step in his walk and a skin complexion afforded him by a sporty lifestyle he has kept over the years.

Settling in for the interview, his background revealing a cabinet full of sports paraphernalia including trophies from past exploits, Sunderani launched into greetings in several Ugandan local languages – luganda, lusoga, runyoro/rutooro, the like, asking me to respond to whichever is mine.

I responded to runyoro/rutooro, in which we exchanged a few more pleasantries before he got stuck.

“I have been away from Uganda for 42 years, so pardon me if I am mixing up the languages,” he says apologetically, adding that he left in 1972, just two years after discovering Akii-Bua.

Discovering Akii-Bua

Sunderani vividly recalls the afternoon of Akii-Bua’s discovery, which happened at an athletics competition he was manning as Chief Sports Officer. “It was in 1970 during the National Athletics Championships at Pece Stadium in Gulu,” he recalls, adding “Apollo Milton Obote was President then, and the chief sports officer had a lot of powers to make any decisions for anything sports-related, with no interference at all.”

The Uganda team poses with President Milton Obote (centre front row ) and Kampala mayor Serwano Kulubya (second left front row) upon return from the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica

“As I paced about, readying to set off the runners in the 400-metre hurdles, all on the starting line waiting to hear the gunshot, a young man seemingly in his early 20s interrupted. Suddenly, he cut in from the audience end and started running on the waiting tracks. He had no shoes on – just a pair of shorts that were really short, and a nondescript T-shirt.  The security officials went after him, but instead of exiting the stadium, he ran straight ahead in the race tracks, towards the hurdles.

“Then, one by one, he jumped over them,” Sunderani recalls.

“As he leapt over them, he maintained his pace up to the last hurdle, the mobility still good and no security official about to catch up. I watched him in awe. Instead of being agitated that he was holding us back, I enjoyed the chase, just like the spectators in the pavilion.

“Then, about the same time, another man, an older one, cut in from the audience and ran towards me. He managed to make it to where I was standing and immediately started talking before security caught up with him. ‘Excuse me bwana, that boy being chased over there is my son; he is so good at running and can beat all your boys if you put him in the race. I dare you to include him – he will win, and you will have to give me a cow for bringing him to you.’ The old man, panting and nudging me to ‘put him in’ as security whisked him away, got me thinking.”

That year, Sunderani was meant to field eight runners, but one of them had sustained a muscle pull and fallen off the team. This was the spate of luck that made Akii-Bua the man we all give a honk about today.

“With a vacant slot on the team and a willing runner I could gamble with, I decided on a hunch to try out the young man, who, by then, had been apprehended and brought before me. I asked my assistants to process him for the waiting race. He registered as John Akii-Bua, and refused the spikes we had improvised for him, saying he preferred running on bare feet.”

Sunderani being awarded Grand Member of Ugandan Sport by Milton Obote

With the quiet restored in the stadium and the runners ready, the command went. “On your mark, get set, and poof!” The gun went off.  But Akii-Bua started late.

“The young man, whom we found out was 21 then and a policeman, started a fraction of a second late, seeing as he wasn’t trained. I was anxious, hoping my hunch didn’t lie. As the runners approached the hurdles, there he was with them, his mobility and timing a lot better than anyone else’s. That is the point at which I decided this was no ordinary runner, and with training he would do wonders. By the end of the 400 metres, Akii-Bua was in the lead. I couldn’t believe myself, but yes, he had made it – on barefoot, no training. Besides, that was the second time doing the same track after the first incident that caught our attention. And just like that, I had discovered Akii-Bua. His father got the cow, and the young man’s athletics journey started right there, in Gulu,” recalls Sunderani.

Enter Coach Malcolm Arnold

Sunderani says it was after this moment that he assigned Akii-Bua to the better-known Coach Malcom Arnold, whom Sunderani had hired from England earlier in 1967 to lead the national athletics team to greater heights.

It is this coach that many wrongly regard as the one who discovered Akii-Bua, as it was he that featured more in the athlete’s on-camera life.

At the time Coach Malcolm took Akii-Bua under his wing, it was just four months to the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Coach Malcolm pushed the rookie so hard just so he could be in shape for the games, where Uganda made a strong presence under Sunderani as Chef-de-Mission/General Team Manager.

Akii-Bua did represent the country in high hurdles, and came fourth. Even though we didn’t perform well in athletics, Uganda was the Commonwealth Games’ top boxing nation that year, bringing home seven medals in all – four gold and three silver (five of the seven were for boxing alone, that is, three gold and two silver). The late Maj. Gen. Francis Nyangweso, then a Major in Obote’s Army, was the boxing team manager, having been a boxer for a long time under Sunderani’s sports umbrella. 

According to Sunderani, Akii-Bua returned from Edinburgh disappointed he didn’t win, and seething to beat all at the Munich Olympics two years away. And indeed, the athlete and Coach Malcolm went to work training for the Olympics, burning the candle at both ends every single day.

As for Sunderani, this was just about the time he ceased featuring in Akii-Bua’s life. Why?

Because President Obote, in 1971, was deposed by Idi Amin, an unpredictable tyrant who kept Sunderani engaged as his personal fitness trainer, among many useless errands. Sunderani had been Amin’s occasional fitness trainer earlier when Amin was army commander in Obote’s army. But after toppling Obote, the tyrant engaged Sunderani almost full-time, keeping him busy with a lot of nothing, so much so that Sunderani didn’t have much time with Akii-Bua or the sports portfolio.

SPOT HIM? Here, Sunderani  holds the Uganda flag at the opening ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

When Sunderani escorted Amin to the ‘toilet’

“If Amin wanted your company, it didn’t matter what else you were working on. There was a time he rang my house at Nyonyi Gardens in Kololo and asked me over to his house, which was a ten-minute drive up Kololo hill – he was Obote’s army commander then. He wanted me to accompany him jogging. It was at about 5pm, and it didn’t matter to him that I was preparing for an important meeting at 5:30pm. I had to ask my assistant, Polycarp Kakooza, to sit in for me. At his house, I found him taking beer and a concoction people used to relieve them from constipation.

“After, we drove in his BMW to Wankulukuku Stadium, some 30 minutes away. Just when we were about to start jogging, he excused himself and asked me to go on, while he hid behind the scrap of a truck in the stadium and defecated for a good 20 minutes – I think the constipation concoction had worked.

“He then approached me and went like, ‘Hassan, stop jogging, let’s go back to Kampala, what we came to do is done’. It turned out he wanted me to accompany him to defecate, can you imagine? That’s how strange, inconsiderate and unpredictable Amin was. So I knew better than to devote my time to Akii-Bua and the athletics team when Amin needed me with him, and that is how he kept distancing me from office as chief sports officer,” recalls Sunderani, who says he suspected Amin was up to no good even though he treated him with some sort of friendliness.

Meanwhile, Akii-Bua was training for Munich and was progressing well. One evening in 1971, as if it was a parting gift, Sunderani took Akii-Bua and Coach Malcolm out to Central Cinema on Kampala Road.

There, they watched the 400-metre hurdles races from the previous Olympics years, on special request by Sunderani. From that moment on, winning the Olympics was all Akii-Bua ever talked about. Also, that was the last time Sunderani ever interacted with Akii-Bua in Uganda.

Because a few days later, Sunderani had to make a split-second decision to live the country for good, and with his family, in haste. Reason? Amin!

Amin gets crazy, Sunderani is marked for death

It was Maj. Gen. Francis Nyangweso, then Amin’s Chief of Staff and Army Commander, who tipped Sunderani off – thanks to the friendship he and the celebrity boxer-soldier had struck years before Amin was the alpha and omega.

On a Monday morning in 1971, with Amin’s paranoia and madness escalating, the late Maj. Gen. Nyangweso showed up at Sunderani’s house and asked him to run for his life.

Sunderani with Nyangweso and Sunderani's deputy Kakooza shortly after the 1971 military coup

“Nyangweso told me that I and 14 other high level government officials from Obote’s regime would be picked up and murdered by Amin’s henchmen in the night of the coming Saturday. I believed Nyangweso instantly since all along I had a gut feeling Amin was up to no good, and didn’t really like officials from the previous regime that had a lot of influence, or those that Obote trusted. So, being on Amin’s kill-list didn’t surprise me at all.

“Away from my influence in many circles, the Uganda Sports Council had earlier in 1969 honoured me with the country’s highest and first ever award – Grand Member of Uganda Sport. President Obote himself had handed me the award, and all of East Africa had buzzed with the news. So clearly, Amin would no doubt want my head because if you were popular, you were a threat. Plus, this was his plan to cultivate allegiance from all the other officials he would spare. Immediately Nyangweso gave me the heads-up, I got in touch with the British High Commissioner, who helped me process travel to England,” Sunderani recalls.  

The narrow escape

On the Friday before the fateful Saturday, Nyangweso gave Sunderani a ride to the airport. They were friends and could have had a lot to talk about. But from Kampala to the airport, it was a quiet ride, no words exchanged – just tension.

“I was picked up at about 3:45pm; my family had left a lot earlier. All I had were my travel documents, academic credentials and pictures, nothing else – I didn’t want anyone suspecting I was leaving. We even left our Peugeot parked at the front patio of our house just to show we were around. Everything else in the house was left as had always been. We drove quietly up to the airport, not a single word exchanged; all that filled the air was tension, especially when we drove past any military vehicles or installations.

“It was a 45-minute drive to the airport, but that journey has since been the longest 45 minutes of my life! At the airport, it felt even tenser. Whenever a security official rested their eyes on me for a moment, my heart leapt. It felt as though someone alerted to keep an ear to the ground had realised I was leaving,” he remembers.

He checked in without incident, but then again entered another painstaking wait between boarding and take-off. At 5:30pm, the Alitalia airliner he was flying finally took off. Sunderani says he felt as though he was born again, but not quite. Because with Amin, anything could happen, especially with the plane still in the Ugandan air space.

Sunderani was 40 then, and with a young family, he really needed to make it to his destination in one piece.

In Rome, Italy, he got onto a British Overseas airliner that took him up to London, where he reunited with family. This, he says, was the first time he felt a bit safe, but that he never stopped looking over his shoulder. “It took several years for me to stop being paranoid,” he says, adding “Nyangweso saved my life.” And needless to say, the other 14, according to Sunderani, were indeed picked up and taken to Makindye prison, where they were killed in cold blood.  

Sunderani starts new life in England

  NEAT AND SHARP: Sunderani (3rd left front row) with the Uganda National team at the Apollo Hotel (present day Sheraton Hotel ) after their return from the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica

Sunderani was no stranger to England, seeing as it’s where he did his post-secondary school education on an Aga-Khan scholarship before returning to Uganda to develop her sports world. Which is why after seeking asylum there, he picked up where he had left off after finishing university some seven years back. In London, he took a job lecturing Physical Education and English at East Ham College of Technology, where he also worked as a students’ counselor.

But back home in Uganda, Akii-Bua’s experience on the hurdles was coming of age. And it was only a matter of months before Munich arrived.

Witnessing Akii-Bua make history at Munich Olympics, 1972

In England, Sunderani bought a ticket and flew to Munich, Germany, to witness the coming true of the dream he was a part of from the word go.

 “It was nice to see the team, especially seeing as I could have died and not witnessed the moment,” Sunderani recalls, relishing the moment. 

“Nyangweso was in-charge then. Seeing him brought tears to my eyes – he had saved my life just months ago, and he wasn’t taking it as a big deal. Besides, we couldn’t talk about it then – we didn’t want a soul to know it was he that tipped me off,” he says.  

 “I met Akii-Bua some hours before he got onto the race track and told him I had traveled all the way from London to Munich just to see him run. I told him I knew he would make it, and made him promise me he would. For someone who wasn’t a favourite of the team after his previous loss in Edinburgh, he wasn’t so sure about himself at Munich; all of him scared of the English favourite David Hemery, then reigning Olympic champion and record holder. I told him to flush that out of his mind and envision himself the winner.

“Moments later I sat in the pavilion and watched him push harder on the inside lane, and past David Hemery with a clear lead. I wept. My mind went back to Pece Stadium in Gulu, my eyes wet with tears of joy. John Akii-Bua, that little police boy I had tried out in 1970 just to fill up a slot, had become the first African to win gold in an event under 800 metres, and also the first man to break the 48-seconds barrier in the 400-metre hurdles. That event, which came to be nicknamed 'The Mankiller', will never leave my mind. I remember it vividly – Akii-Bua reaching the finish line and continuing in celebration all the way round instead of stopping. That moment right there made me cry. And it was also the last time I ever saw Akii-Bua.”

The day John Akii-Bua made Ugandan history. And the day Sundareni's eyes welled with tears witnessing this piece of history unfold

Learning to live away from home

After this Munich moment, Sunderani flew back to London a happy man. And although he wished to be on the flight back to Uganda with the team, he just couldn’t. He had to get used to a life away from home, and pick up a routine teaching. Two years later he was appointed Magistrate, County Borough of Newham, London, a job he did until 1980 when he permanently moved to Canada.

Sunderani’s clout wasn’t lost on the Canadians, as he hit the ground running.

For seven years, he produced and hosted an issue-driven television programme called Current Affairs Magazine in Victoria, BC, and Calgary, Alberta. It was on this show that he met the who-is-who of the world. He hosted, among others, Prime Minister Joe Clark, Prince Charles, heir to the British throne; the Duke of Edinbugh, sports leaders, several Canadian mayors, other politicians and law enforcers.

Sunderani is pictured here with His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh

Sunderani welcoming His Royal Highness Prince Phillip to the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria BC Canada

Little wonder that in 1988, he joined the Victoria Commonwealth Games Society as a volunteer, and was sent to several countries to lobby for Victoria’s bid for the 1994 Commonwealth Games.

Indeed, when the games made it to Victoria, Sunderani, chair of the organizing committee of the games that year, was one of the people who had spent days globe-trotting to lobby for the historical showcase. Which is why it is not surprising that before he hung his boots, he was a member of the Board of Governors of the Victoria Commonwealth Games Society.

Today, Sunderani, who hasn’t set foot in Uganda since he left 43 years ago, is retired with several accolades on his wall of fame. Though he is currently entertaining the thought of coming back home in Uganda, it’s only to visit. Because Canada is now what he calls home.

At Guelph, Ontario, Sunderani runs his own hotel, the Comfort Inn, an 80-room Four-Star with revving  reviews on the wires. He calls it his retirement package, managed by his son Aly. His normal day involves him waking up at 5:30am daily for his hour-long swimming session, except Sundays when he goes walking for at least two hours. He then goes gardening, followed by television in the afternoon before he goes to hang out at his hotel and do book-keeping.

“Often, I look back to my days in Uganda, discovering Akii-Bua, his victory and then the sad circumstances under which he died – I only read about it. It is sad that I was unable to attend his burial,” he says of the athlete, who died June 20, 1997 at Mulago Hospital from abdominal complications, penniless and almost forgotten, 25 years after the Munich victory.

Aly, Sunderani's son with whom he escaped from Idi Amin. Aly runs Comfort Inn which is owned by Hassan Sunderani

But Sunderani believes that even though it all ended tragically for Akii-Bau, some Ugandan tycoon should at least buy the Akii-Bua gold medal and donate it to the Uganda museum so it’s displayed with Akii-Bua’s photo.

“That, I believe would be an honourable way to hold onto the memory of one great Ugandan who made his country talked about for something phenomenal, other than Amin’s atrocities,” says Sunderani. 

Sunderani at a glance

He was born at Namirembe Hospital in Mengo to Sonbai Nathoo and Mohamed Ali (not the boxer).

He went to Aga Khan Primary School, where he started playing football and taking part in athletics at age 10.

He did his high school at Mengo S.S, where he served as captain of their soccer team for three years during his time there (1954 to 1958).

In 1959, he became the captain of the Agha Khan Soccer Club, leading them to the finals in the Uganda FA, when they beat the Kabaka’s Abalangira FC 3-2 to win the trophy. Imam of the Ismaili faith, Moulana Hazar Imaam The Agha Khan, handed him the trophy.

  As the chairman organising committee for the 1994 Commonwealth Games Boxing, Sunderani introduces wife Tazim to His Royal Highness Prince Edward in Victoria British Columbia

In 1960 he traveled to England for his post-secondary education on an Agha Khan Scholarship, and got a degree in Physical Education and Sports Administration from Loughborough University, as well as a degree in English from Oxford University.

He returned to Uganda and assumed the position of chief sports officer from 1964 to 1971, a job he did while concurrently producing and hosting a sports show on UTV, called Sports Review every Sunday. During his reign as chief, the Uganda Sports Council in 1969 awarded him Grand Member of Uganda Sport, the country’s highest and first ever of its kind, and President Obote handed him the award.

This award came because of so many milestones he inspired. For instance, he led the Uganda sports teams to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingstone, Jamaica; the 1968 Mexico Games and the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. He also attended the Pan-Arab Games in 1967 in Cairo, Egypt on behalf of the country. With such representations and more to his name, it was inevitable that he would get that award.

Remembering the glory days of Ugandan sport, Sunderani says:

“Around East Africa, Uganda was always on top in everything sports-related, with the Uganda Cranes name all over Africa. I remember us winning the Gossage Cup for so many years in a row. The name later became the East African Championships, now CECAFA. Government invested a lot of money in sports then, and left me to experiment with whatever I thought of. The minister of community development was in-charge of sports and never interfered. At one time it was Adoko Nekyon – very progressive minister who listened to everything I suggested for Ugandan sport.

"As a result we participated in all sorts of regional tournaments and Uganda was a celebrity country. We had super footballers like Mathias Ouma (fore behind), Joseph Masajjage, a goalkeeper who never let a single ball through, so much so that in 1968, he was named footballer of the year.  We also had David Otti in defense, Obua in left wing.

"Those chaps made The Uganda Cranes Super. I will never forget them.”

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Akii-Bua, Uganda's legendary athlete
Hurdler Akii Bua lifts Uganda on world stage

The sad story of John Akii Bua

Africa recognises Akii Bua's contribution

Kiprotich wins Olympic gold

I wanted to emulate Akii-Bua - Kiprotich

Amin's photo almost got me killed

The man who discovered John Akii-Bua

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