As the world grapples with the tension of the escalating coronavirus pandemic, Ugandan athletes, like many across the globe, are pondering what next as they stare at the ugly possibility of cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
But if this happens – we hope it doesn’t – it won’t be the first time Ugandans miss out on major Games. Flashback.
Montreal 1976 – Boycott
Vicky Byarugaba, who was one of the hottest items on Peter Sseruwagi’s boxing team, missed the trip to the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada. His light-welterweight berth was taken by Jones Okoth. But Byarugaba followed matters closely.
“All African teams had reached in Montreal,” he told us via phone. “But Maj Gen Francis Nyangweso, who was a member of the International Boxing Association (Aiba), played a major role in convincing the African teams to boycott.”
African countries wanted the International Olympic Committee to ban New Zealand after their rugby team played with apartheid South Africa, which had already been banned from the Olympics in 1964.
When the IOC refused to dance to the African tune, 28 African countries withdrew from the Games, despite already being in Montreal. Over 300 athletes missed the Games, which antagonised many events.
Before the Games, BBC reported: “Athletics events will be particularly affected by the absence of Filbert Bayi from Tanzania, who holds the world record in the 1500m and John Akii-Bua of Uganda, world record-holder in the 400 metres hurdles.”
Akii-Bua was Team Uganda’s captain in Canada. He must have watched with envy as American debutant Edwin Moses broke his world record but, according to the New African Magazine, he later said: “I feel that Africa was victorious at the [Montreal] Games, because the IOC was deliberate in their move to allow New Zealand to participate despite the country’s links with racists.
“As it were, the [IOC] feared that Africa would enjoy a better harvest of the medals and there was no other way to deny us this, other than allowing New Zealand to compete.”
Cornelius Boza-Edwards was among Uganda’s promising boxers awaiting action in Montreal. He had joined his seven teammates from London, where he had migrated to. Representing England in about three dual tournaments against Ireland, Denmark, and USA, in early 1976 – he had won in all.
But the promising featherweight saw his only Olympics chance evaporate through the political chimney.
Frustrated, Boza returned to UK and turned professional in December 1976. His consolation came four years later when he beat Mexican Rafael Limón to win WBC World Super Featherweight title in 1981.
Two years after Montreal, Byarugaba recalls President Idi Amin cancelled Uganda’s trip to the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada, because Israel, Amin’s number one enemy, was to participate in the Games. But Amin was misinformed because Israel was not a member of the Commonwealth.
London 2012 – asylum
Since the 1976 Montreal boycott, Uganda has never missed any Olympics edition. But due to administrative wrangles, boxers missed London 2012 as they did the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
Prior to London, only two Bombers got the chance to duel at the 2011 World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan – which was a qualifier to the London Games.
After getting bronze at the All-Africa Games in Maputo, light fly Ronald Serugo – the only Ugandan boxer at Beijing 2008 – was Uganda’s main hope to qualify for the Baku games. But he won one and lost one in the preliminaries.
Bantamweight Atanus Mugerwa lost the preliminaries 18:10 to Algeria’s Mohamed Amine Oudahi.
Two months later, Serugo won gold at the Tammer International Tournament in Tampere, Finland, but sought exile in Sweden. Mugerwa followed him there. And neither made it to London.
Yekaterinburg 2019: no-show
The only Ugandan who participated in the 2019 World Boxing Championship in Yekaterinburg, Russia, was Stephen Aciga Fula, a referee/judge.
Not middleweight David Ssemuju or featherweight Isaac Masembe – who bagged silver medals at the African Games in Rabat, Morocco, last month. Even Hellen Baleke, who won bronze in Rabat, missed the Women’s edition in Ulan-Ude, Russia, in October.
Moses Muhangi, Uganda Boxing Federation president, said they lacked the funds to prepare the team for Russia when the African Olympic Qualifiers were coming soon in Dakar, Senegal.
The absence from the Russian games must have haunted the Bombers in Dakar, Senegal, as only one out of 13 qualified for Tokyo 2020.