Uganda sprinter Amos Omolo was born on March 9, 1937 presumably in Kenya from where he is said to have migrated to Uganda for which he competed for a considerably lengthy period of time. Omolo comes through as a dedicated and excellent runner, who competed with some of the legendary 400m dash world-record holders and Olympians of the 1960’s and 1970’s. At the Olympic Games of 1968, Amos Omolo would establish a national record in the 400m run, that would endure for 27 years. As such, Amos Omolo will forever stand out, internationally, as Uganda’s (first) premier elite runner.
At the British Commonwealth Games of 1962 held in Perth in Western Australia, held during November 22-December 1, Amos Omolo demonstrated international competence. Omolo’s bronze medal win in the 440 yards run (nearly the equivalent of the metric 400 meter-run) timed in 46.88 seconds was a photo-finishing close battle. George Kerr of Jamaica won in 46.74 seconds, and Robbie Brightwell of England came in second with in 46.86. In Bob Phillip’s Honour of Empire, Glory of Sport: the History of Athletics at the Commonwealth Games (2000: 92), it is mentioned that this was only the sixth time that bronze medalist Omolo had dabbled in this distance. Many were impressed by this African performance, a promise of spectacular African performances in the very near future. Omolo was also part of the Uganda 4x400m relay team. The others in the group were Asmani Bawala, Francis Hatega, and George Odeke. It was a prestigious presence, but the Uganda team was eighth and last in a time of 3:13.6.The only other medal won for Uganda was a bronze gathered by Benson Ishiepai who ran in the 440 yards-hurdles.
The other notable Uganda achievements at these Games were by way of boxing: a gold medal won by heavyweight George Oywello, a bronze medal won by bantamweight J.Sentongo, silver medal won by lightweight Kesi Odongo, and a bronze medal won by Francis Nyangweso. The overall 6-medals’ count was a milestone for newly politically independent Uganda. Uganda’s overall performance was 11th out of the 35 nations that competed at the Games. The leap was gigantic, compared to the lone Uganda medal won by welterweight boxer Thomas Kawere in the previous Commonwealth Games that were held in 1958 in Cardiff in Wales. In Cardiff, Uganda emerged 17th, overall out of 24 participating nations. Uganda first participated in the Commonwealth Games in 1954, held in Vancouver in Canada. Uganda’s inaugural participation resulted in a lone medal for the nation: the silver medal won by Patrick Etolu in the high jump. This was an encouraging start for Uganda, the nation placed 14th overall, out of 24 participating countries.
Tokyo hosted the summer Olympics of 1964 that were opened by Emperor Hirohito on October 11, 1964. The closing ceremony took place on October 24. Amos Omolo’s relatively mediocre performance would not allow him to move on beyond the very first round. In heat 3 of the four heats, 27-year old Omolo finished 5th with a time of 47.6. All the men who had beaten Omolo were considerably younger than him. Further disappointment came in Tokyo, when the Uganda 4×100 men’s relay team consisting of Amos Omolo, Erasmus Amukun, Aggrey Awori, and James Odongo were eliminated from further contention after ending up in 6th place in the preliminary round.
The Commonwealth Games were next held in Kingston in Jamaica, during August 4-13, 1966. Uganda did not win any medals in track running, but boxers Alex Odhiambo (light-welterweight), Mathias Ouma (middleweight), and Benson Ocan (heavyweight) went back home with bronze medals. Uganda’s overall performance, compared to that registered in the previous Commonwealth Games, was lackluster. Uganda emerged 21st overall, out of 32 participating countries.
The East and Central African Athletics Championships (primarily involving Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania; and later also Zambia, Somalia, Ethiopia, and even Egypt) are normally held annually. Among Omolo’s crowning performances at these Championships were the gold medal he won in 1968, the tournament held in Tanzania’s capital Dar-es-Salaam. Omolo won in 47.6 seconds. During the 1960’s, Omolo was often part of the Uganda’s many medal victories in both the short and long relays.
Amos Omolo arrived in Mexico City to represent Uganda at the Olympics held during October 12-27 in 1968, he was nearly 32 years old and he was notably Uganda’s oldest participant. His comparatively advanced age, with many of the world’s top 100m and 400m runners nearly 10 or more years younger than him, did not seem to phase Omolo’s determination.
Omolo was much less regarded in the 100m than in the 400m run. In Round One (held on October 13) of the 100m dash, Omolo was drawn in Heat 2. Surprisingly, Omolo was comparatively impressive, running in fourth (in 10.5 seconds) respectively behind legendary future world-record holder 22 year-old James Ray “Jim” Hines (10.26 seconds) of the USA, Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa (10.30 seconds) of Madagascar, and Gaoussou Koné (10.37 seconds) of the Ivory Coast. The four advanced to the quarter-finals’ round.
The quarter-finals were held later, on the same day of October 13. Omolo was drawn in Heat 3. Omolo was eliminated from further contention after running in 7th and timed at
10.45 seconds. The winner was Pablo Montes of Cuba (in 10.1 seconds). The three who followed, advanced to the semi-finals. They were Hartmut Schelter (10.29 seconds) of East Germany, Hideo Iijima (10.31 seconds) of Japan, and a photofinishing Gerard Fenouil (10.31 seconds) of France. The four advanced to the semi-finals.
On October 16, the Round One heats of the men’s 400 meters-dash were held. Omolo won in his heat (Heat Five), with an impressive time of 45.88 seconds. The runners who respectively finished behind him and altogether advanced to the next (quarter-finals) round were Munyoro Hezekiah Nyamau (45.91 seconds) of Kenya, Jean-Claude Nallet (45.93 seconds) of France, and Hellmar Muller (45.98 seconds) of West Germany.
The quarter-finals were held on the next day, October 17th. Omolo was drawn in Heat Two. Consequently, his performance was phenomenal. Omolo won with a crowning Uganda national record of 45.33 seconds that would stand until Davis Kamoga broke it in 1995 on May 5 in Nairobi in Kenya, timed in 45.29 seconds. Kamoga would subsequently improve on the record for five more times until August 5, 1997 whereby in a second-place finishing in Athens at the 6th IAAF World Athletics Championships, Kamoga was timed at a national record of 44.37 seconds. Davis Kamoga is still officially the only Ugandan to have run the 400 meters faster than Omolo.
Omolo did beat past and future 400m (and 4x400m relay) world record older Lee Evans of the USA, in the quarter-finals. But, it could well be that legendary 21 year-old Lee Evans was simply relaxed during the race and was comfortable with simply and safely advancing to the next (semi-final) round. Lee Evans ran in second in 45.54 seconds, Munyoro Hezekiah Nyamau was third and timed at 46.12 seconds, and Wolfgang Muller of East Germany (GDR) was fourth in 46.32 seconds. The four advanced to the semi-finals. Amos Omolo had proved that he was a strong medal prospect! Hezekiah Nyamau would later be part of the surprising 1968 Kenya 4x400m relay team that established a national record and won silver, being runners-up to world record-breaking USA.
In the next Olympics (Munich, 1972), Hezekiah Nyamau would be part of the Kenya gold winning team. The USA had become weakened because recent 400m gold and silver medallists Vince Mathews and Wayne Collett were banned from further competition because of alleged shoddy indiscipline as they stood on the medal stands as the USA anthem was played. American John Smith who was the favorite to win in the 400m run, was weakened by a leg injury and in the finals he pulled out early in the race. Severely reducing the USA team, gave Kenya the opportunity to win. They did just that, proving that their silver medal win in the previous Olympics had not been a fluke! In addition to Nyamau, the Kenya relay team consisted of all fine and legendary runners: Charles Asati, Julius Sang (the 400m bronze medal win at the same Olympics), and Robert Ouko.
The semi-finals of the 400m run were also held on the same day the quarter-finals were held (October 17), testimony that the closeness between the heats required the strategy of the competitors to minimize overexerting themselves. The tables did turn! In heat two, where Omolo was placed, Lee Edward Evans won in 44.83 seconds (a new Olympics’ record), arch-nemesis 20 year-old George Lawrence “Larry” James of the USA ran in second in 44.88 seconds, 23 year-old Martin Jellinghaus of West Germany (FDR) ran in third and was timed at 45.06 seconds, and 31 year-old Amos Omolo came in fourth in 45.52 seconds. These four athletes would move on to the finals in which they would compete with the other (Heat One) first-four semi finalists: 28 year-old Amadou Gakou (45.17 seconds) of Senegal, 21 year-old Ron Freeman (45.47 seconds) of the USA, 25 year-old Andrzej Badenski (45.50 seconds) of Poland, and 27 year-old Tegegne Bezabeh (45.60 seconds) of Ethiopia. The line-up was set up for the final showdown!
In just the next day, with not much of an interval rest, the finals of the men’s 400m run were set for October 18. The race would prove to be outstanding and historical. Amos Omolo was unfavorably drawn in the outermost lane 8 (lane 4 and 5 are considered the more advantageous in this distance run) where the runner is placed at the forefront of the competition at the beginning, whereby his judging of the speed competition behind him is minimized. In the end, Lee Evans won in a new world record of 43.86 seconds that would not be broken until 20 years later (in 1988) by Harry “Butch” Reynolds of USA. Furthermore, Lee Evans had become the first man to ever run the 400 meters below 44 seconds. Young Larry James, in unfavorable lane 2 had chased Evans down, but would only manage to rush in at 43.97 seconds (a personal best).
Perhaps one of the inspirations behind these sub-44 seconds’ achievements had been Omolo who had started off with a surging sprint in the first 200 meters. But Omolo apparently became drained. he ended up in last (8th) place with a mediocre timing of an athlete who had lost hope, in 47.61 seconds. As for the rest of the field, American Ron Freeman running in disadvantageous lane 1 won the bronze medal with a time of 44.41 seconds. Perhaps the big race ultimately became a battle between Lee Evans and Larry James.
The fourth place finisher was Amadou Gakou (in favorable lane 5) of Senegal in 45.01 seconds, Martin Jellinghaus (in lane 3) of West Germany (FDR/ FRG) came in fifth in 45.33 seconds. Tegegne Bezabeh of Ethiopia, running in favorable lane four, was placed 6th and timed at 45.42 seconds. Andrzej Badenski of Poland ran in 7th in a photo-finish with Bezabeh, Badenski also timed in 45.42. An apparently disillusioned and struggling Omolo would be the only one among the finalists to finish in a time of more than 46 seconds and even more than 47 seconds. Omolo trailed behind and finished in a disappointing 47.61 seconds! Not something that would have been expected of a competitor who had won in two of the previous rounds.
The Olympics of 1968 would be Omolo’s last magnanimous appearance. Amos Omolo’s performance was bitter-sweet. Omolo had proved his worth, despite his advancing age, with establishing his personal best and longstanding 400m Uganda record in 1968. He prestigiously won in two previous succeeding heats, he went on to the finals of an Olympic running event, achievements which still remain rare among Uganda’s Olympians. The Olympics in Mexico City were among the most significant in history. The “black power” demonstrations were there, Africans (more so the Kenyans with the several medals they won) displayed that they were a force to reckon with on the sports scene. Several Africans established personal, regional, and even Olympic records. Amos Omolo was very much part of that magnanimous history.
Murphy, F. The Last Protest: Lee Evans in Mexico City. Windsprint Press, Michigan: 2006.
Phillips, B. Honour of Empire, Glory of Sport: the History of Athletics at the Commonwealth Games. Parrs Wood, Michigan: 2000.