What to watch on Sunday, August 10th, 2008

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The John Akii-Bua Story: An African Tragedy

BBC 2 at 10:30pm (Other show times...)

The John Akii-Bua Story: An African Tragedy

You may not be familiar with John Akii-Bua (pictured), but by the end of this powerful, poignant and emotionally draining documentary, you will remember his name forever. Akii-Bua was an extraordinary man. A promising Ugandan athlete, he was fortunate to meet British-born coach Malcolm Arnold, who realised his potential, suggesting that he switch from short-distance hurdling to the 400m hurdles.

It was a masterstroke. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Akii-Bua came out of nowhere, becoming the first man to break the 48-second barrier and the first African to win Olympic gold at an event under 800 metres.

A long, successful and profitable career should have followed, but that's when the heroic hurdler began his toughest challenge. He returned home to Idi Amin's Uganda, just as the deranged dictator was stepping up his systematic liquidation of his enemies, who came predominantly from Akii-Bua's tribe. The programme includes some galling footage and reconstructions of the terrible atrocities that took place, along with memories of those that survived the bloodshed.

Initially Akii-Bua was treated as a national hero, but then Idi Amin began to view his popularity as a threat. Prevented from competing abroad, Akii-Bua was never able to achieve the success enjoyed by his counterparts in other countries. In 1979, fearing for his life, he fled Uganda. His dramatic escape - through armed checkpoints - is brilliantly portrayed here.

Away from Uganda, he faded from view, but was determined that his story should come out. In 1983, he met up with his former coach Malcolm Arnold, handing him 12 notebooks chronicling his life, detailing the horror he had experienced under Amin and his eventual escape from Uganda. These notebooks form the basis for much of the programme.

Penniless and forgotten, just 25 years after Munich, Akii-Bua died in 1997. He was just 47 years old. This programme brings to light the plight of this incredible man whose triumph at the 1972 Olympics was totally eclipsed by the horrors suffered in his beloved homeland. Essential viewing.

Reviewer - Paul Strange

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The John Akii-Bua Story: An African Tragedy

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