Vitus Ashaba: Uganda National Records at the Olympics, and the Race With Kipchoge Keino and Jim Ryun

In the late August of 1972, Uganda middle-distance champion and steeplechaser Vitus Ashaba aged 29, flew to Munich with the crop of Ugandan athletes and boxers to represent the nation at the Olympics in Germany. Also registered to compete in both the 1500 meters and the 3000 meters steeplechase were legendary Kenyan Hezekiah Kipchoge Keino, and the then unheralded future Tanzanian legend Filbert Bayi Sanka. One of the most anticipated Olympic 1500m duals would be that between “Kip” Keino and America’s greatest high school and national middle-distance runner James “Jim” Ryun who held the world-record holder.

Four years earlier at the Olympics in high-altitude and -heat Mexico City, a somewhat sickly and tired but not intimidated Keino, had against doctor’s advice persevered and used team tactics with training-partner Benjamin Wabura Jipcho to initially tire fellow competitors and then finally run away to win the 1500m gold in Olympic record time (3:34.91). It became too late for eventual silver-medallist Ryun (3:37.89) to catch up, and at the finishing line he trailed 20 meters behind Keino.

A 50th anniversary milestone was recently celebrated, as Jim Ryun reflected on the 3:58.3 national high school record in the mile that he established on May 15th 1965, at the Kansas State High School Meet at Wichita State University’s Cessna Stadium. It was also a new Kansas State record. Further, the 3:58.3 still stands as the record in a mile-race that included only high school students. Earlier on in 1964 Ryun, as a junior, still at East High School, had become the first national high school student to break the 4-minute barrier–3:59. And even more, in San Diego at the American open championships in early June 1965, 18 year-old Ryun still in high school, established a new American record (3:55.3) as he shocked the world by holding off New Zealand legend and triple Olympic gold-medallist Peter Snell. As a national high-school record, the 3:55.3 would stand for nearly four decades until Virginian Alan Webb’s 3:53.43 on May 27th 2001 at the Oregon Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. Ryun started taking competitive athletics seriously only a couple of years before he started establishing the many middle-distance records that would include world records established in 1967 in the 1500m (3:33.1; Compton-Los Angeles) and the mile (3:51:1; Bakersfield, CA). Ryun as a youngster had been rejected by youth basketball, baseball, and even track teams. But devout Ryun had the faith in church and God, and humbly prayed for fruition in life. Jim Ryun’s shoulders were broad and bony, his knees were long and bony, all on a 6’2″ lanky 165 lb frame. Perhaps his biggest drawback was his vulnerability to bouts of sickness and physical injuries. At the 1968 Olympics when 21 year-old Ryun lost to 28 year-old Kip Keino, he had recently suffered a mild bout of mononucleosis that had placed a question mark on whether he would compete in Mexico City.

The relatively lanky Ugandan Vitus Ashaba (5’8″, 130Ib) was placed to run the Olympics 3000 meters-steeplechase in Heat One of four preliminary heats of the first round on September 1st 1972. This first round also included both Africans 32 year-old Kip Keino and 19 year-old Filbert Bayi who would also compete in the 1500m. Tapio Kantanen of Finland, aged 23, won (8:24.8) in a new Olympic record. Keino finishing second (8:27.6), together with 24 year-old Takaharu Koyama of Japan (8:29.8), also qualified for the next round which would be the finals. But though Bayi who finished ninth (8:41.4) and Ashaba who finished tenth (8:45.0) would not move on to the finals, both times were Tanzania and Uganda national records. And the 8:45.0 would forever be Ashaba’s personal best. It would further be intriguing that in the fourth heat on the same day, Kenya’s Amos Biwott, who had won the Olympic gold four years earlier in Mexico City, would win and reduce the Olympic record to 8:23.73 within a couple of hours. On September 7th, Kipchoge Keino, running in an event he had rarely competed in, would surprisingly win the Olympic gold in the steeplechase in a new Olympic record (8:23.64). This was his second Olympic gold simultaneous with Olympic records! Kipchoge had initially planned to compete in both the 1500m and 5000m, but the Olympic schedule of 1972 would have made that very difficult. Also, only 32 year-old Julio Faustino Quevedo Elias of Guatemala, at only a couple of months older than Keino was older than him amongst the male steeplechase competitors of the Munich Olympics. Filbert Bayi Sanka, who would beat Keino in the 1500m at the All-Africa Games held in Lagos in January 1973, was the youngest among the 1972 Olympic steeplechasers. Second in the finals was legendary Kenyan Ben Jipcho (8:24.62), and the bronze medallist was Finn Tapio Kantanen (8:24.66).

Ashaba hoped for better results in the 1500m. Here, there would be a first round of heats on September 8th, the qualified would move on to the two semi-final heats held on September 9th; and the finals would be on September 10th. The First Round consisted of seven heats whereby the first finishers in each heat, together with the next two overall fastest would move on to the semi-finals. Ashaba was placed in Heat Four which included Keino and Ryun. This would turn out to be the fastest heat among the preliminary rounds. The race began, and as typically, Ryun bided his time to wait for an outburst near the end of the race. But it was not to be. About a lap before the end of the race, and accident between Ashaba, Ryun and Ghanaian William “Billy” Fordjour who were running in close proximity happened (Associated Press 1972). Ashaba’s heal was clipped by Ryun who ended up colliding and falling with the Ghanaian. Ashaba got away, though slowed down. It is not clear who caused the accident, but it seems to have been an accidental collision among runners in very close proximity. Many blame Ryun for the accident. Ryun blamed Ashaba. It was too late for Ryun to catch up in such a short race. Keino won (3:39.97), and alongside Rod Dixon of New Zealand (3:40.03), Gunnar Ekman of Sweden (3:40.40), Klaus-Peter Justus of East Germany (3:40.44), and Gianni Del Buono of Sweden (3:40.78) were the semi-finalists of Heat Four. Ashaba was 8th, but still managed to establish his personal best and new Uganda national record–3:45.2. Ryun finished 9th (3:51.5), and Fordjour last (4:08:2). Keino consoled his arch-nemesis. Ryun blamed Ashaba for the accident, and appealed for reinstatement. His appeal did not achieve fruition, and that ended Ryun’s run at the Olympics. As for Vitus Ashaba, the international sports world would mostly remember him for the accident with Jim Ryun.

Keino would move on to the semi-final round which included three heats on September 9th. He won in the second heat. Heat One had been won by fellow-countryman Mike Boit. On September 10th, at the finals, Keino was overtaken and upstaged near the end of the race by the Finn Pekka Vasala who won the gold (3:36.33). Disappointed Keino was second (3:36.81), Rod Dixon won the bronze (3:37.46), and 23 year-old legendary Michael Kipsubut “Mike” Boit who had won the 800m Olympic bronze on September 2nd was fourth (3:38.41).

Not much was heard about Vitus Ashaba after the Olympics of 1972. He died in 1985, in his early forties, and was survived by widow Joy Namata and five offspring–Dorothy Nshemereirwe, Gerald Mugume, Julius Barinjura, Humphrey Tumushabe, and Chris Tunanukye. Ashaba was interred at his ancestral home in Kyegwisha Village in Ibanda District, in Uganda.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Accident Brings Ryun Bid to End,” in “Spokane Daily Chronicle” (September 8, 1972).


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