The capacity crowd of 34,000 (a two-day total was 52,000) at Duke University’s Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, attending the USA-Pan Africa track meet (sometimes referred to as the USA vs. World meet), was then the largest ever to attend a track meet in the South (Southeast) region of the United States. The meeting on July 16-17, 1971 was the area’s first international competition. A unified African team along with other nations (14 nations in total) against a US team was a unique and unprecedented event. The spectators became the largest and most jubilant track audience in 1971. The 38 selected African athletes included Olympic legends Charles Asati, Mohamed Gamoudi, Kipchoge Keino and Amos Biwott.

John Akii-Bua

In the 400m hurdles, the results were: John Akii-Bua, Uganda (49.0); Melvin Bassett, a local Durham resident (50.7); William Koskei, Kenya (51.2); Ron Rondeau, Miami, FL (52.9).

William “Bill” Koskei, who as an immigrant had previously competed for Uganda and won the silver medal for Uganda at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in the intermediate hurdles, returned to Kenya shortly after Idi Amin’s tumultuous January 1971 coup. An injured Akii-Bua who had finished fourth at the same Commonwealth venue, now in Durham, proved to be Africa’s best 400mh athlete. Akii-Bua, in slicing a full second off the African record and setting a world best time of the year, had also staggeringly edged runner-up Rondeau by almost two seconds! And all of this in high summer temperatures (80s above 90 degrees Fahrenheit), high humidity, and on a recently repaved track. After the Africans won five track gold medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, rumors and suspicions arose that the Africans benefited from the high-altitude conditions they were allegedly accused of. But the Durham meeting in a low-lying environment showed that weather conditions were not important factors in African athletes’ success against those of other nations.

Eventually, 20-year-old up-and-comer John Akii-Bua of Uganda became the only African to set a significant record in the competition and, after victory in the 400m hurdles, even considered enrolling at North Carolina Central University, where he might work under renowned black American track coach Leroy T. Walker and also further his athletic ambitions at Wallace Wade Stadium. Akii was an anomaly in that he was a short distance runner among the overwhelmingly middle and long distance African athletes in the competition. He got recognition.

Akii Buwa [sic], a policeman from Uganda, set an African record of 49.0 by winning the second gold medal for African men. His time was also the best record in the world this year, and after observing his impeccable form over the hurdles, American and African track and field officials predicted that he will be a strong contender for a gold medal in Munich next year” (Associated Press: 1971).

But such encouraging comments about Akii-Bua’s victory in this technical event rarely associated with Africans on an international scale were rare, with the media focusing mainly on Africa’s prowess over medium and long distances. Turning a blind eye and making Akii-Bua’s performance seem less significant was the notable absence from the competition of American champion Ralph Mann (another Olympic medal prospect) who would have deftly challenged Akii-Bua. Mann was competing in Europe.

Kipchoge Keino and other results

Media praise passed over Akii-Bua, showering praise on Kenyan victors and legends Kipchoge Keino, Robert Ouko and Ben Jipcho; and about Ethiopian long-distance runner Miruts Yifter who had won the 10,000m but had withdrawn from the 5,000m at the end of the penultimate lap while she was leading, thinking it was the last lap. The 10000m witnessed the diminutive 5’2″ Yifter finishing in 28:53.1, followed by Florida Track Club’s Frank Shorter (28:53.9), third was Minnesota’s Gary Bjorklund (30:05.3), and fourth was Ethiopia’s Wahib Nasrech (30:34.3).

In the 1500m, Kenyan Kipchoge Keino, who was attempting to break the world record (with the help of Kenyan 800m runner Naftali Bon running like a rabbit), pulled nearly a quarter of a turn away from the main pursuers and won in 3:37.5, ahead of runner-up and compatriot Benjamin Wabura Jipcho (3:43.9) who had won the 3000m hurdles. just an hour before. ! Third in the 1500m was US Army’s Jim Crawford (3:48.0), fourth was Sports International’s John Baker (3:55.2). Africa’s 3000 m steeplechase record holder Jipcho had won in 8:45.2, twenty meters ahead of Oregon Track Club’s Mike Manley (8:48.3), Ohio’s Sid Sink (9:00.2) placed third, and Ethiopia’s Muhammad Yohanes (9:06.2).

In the 800m, Robert Ouko of Kenya won in 1:46.7, one meter ahead of Juris Luzins of the US Marines; with Ken Swenson (US record holder) of the US Army in third. Ouko would enroll at North Carolina Central University, be coached by legendary African-American Leroy T. Walker, who became the first black to coach a United States Olympic men’s track team and to serve as president of the United States Olympic Committee. Walker died in Durham in April 2012, aged 93. At the 1972 Olympics Robert Ouko would be fourth in the 800m and he would be part of Kenya’s 4x400m Olympic gold medal winning team. Julius Sang, also a part of the Kenyan gold winning team, also enrolled in NCCU along with Ouko.

Other notable winners in the competition included American John Smith (Southern California Striders) who triumphed in both the 200m (20.7) and 400m (45.7); Australia’s Rayleane Boyle (23.1) in the 200m ahead of runner-up and African legend Alice Annum (23.2) of Ghana.

Overall, the US men’s team beat the visiting teams 111-78, with the US women winning overwhelmingly with ease.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “The Pan-African Games are closed”, in “The Robesonian” (July 18, 1971).