Judith Ayaa was the dominant female sprinter at the East and Central African Athletic Championships from 1968 to 1972. During the same span of time, she was not only the 4-time 400m champion, but she also often competed in and won in the 100m and 200m, as well as when she was part of the Uganda relay teams. Ayaa’s victory in the 400m at the ECA championships in Dar-es-Salaam was a new Africa record–53.6. By virtue of this personal best time in 1969, Ayaa was in 1969 ranked amongst the world’s top 10 female 400-meters sprinters.
Because there were a relatively low number of women competing in the 400m at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, only a semi-final and a final would hereby take place. On July 22 1970 lined up in the second of the two semi-final heats. She won in quite an astonishing time–52.86–a new Africa record. The time ranked her as eleventh best in the world in 1970.
The final took place on the 23rd. But having been the fastest among the semi-finalists, Ayaa had perhaps ran too fast. She perhaps ought to have ran in relaxed stride, just fast enough to be among the top four of either of the semi-final heats that would ensure their qualifying for the finals. In this second semi-final heat, Sandra Brown of Australia finished second in a full second behind Ayaa. The first semi-final heat in which Marilyn Fay Neufville of Jamaica won in 53.05, was apparently one of more tactfulness and relaxation.
In the final, slender and relatively short 17 year-old Neufville won in 51.02–a new world record. She won by an astonishing more than two seconds ahead of silver medallist Sandra Brown of Australia (53.66). Neufville thereby shaved of by nearly a second the world record of 51.7 set in 1969 by Frenchwomen Colette Besson and Nicole Duclos. Judith Ayaa, overtaken after slowing down near the end of the race, likely due to fatigue after her unnecessary exertion in the semi-finals, was third (53.77) closely behind Sandra Brown and won the bronze. The fatigue had likely cost her at least the silver medal; but the Commonwealth bronze would be one of Ayaa’s most cherished international possessions! It was Uganda’s first Commonwealth Games’ medal won by a woman!
In 1970 at the East-Central African Championships held in Nairobi, Ayaa won in the 400-meters in 54.0. That was in addition to her 100m win.
Ayaa competed at the USA-Pan African Track-and-Field Meet held in mid-July 1971 at Duke University in Durham, NC. Her gold medal-winning timing was 54.69.
Still in 1971, at the ECA Championships in Lusaka, Ayaa won in the 400-meters (54.7); and she was part of the Uganda gold medal victorious teams in both sprint relays.
Ayaa competed at a Pre-Olympic two-day Meet (“Hanns-Braun Memorial International Pre-Olympic Invitational”) in mid-August 1972 in Munich, a build-up for the forthcoming Olympics in the same city of West Germany.
20 year-old Ayaa, participated amongst the 3 heats of the women’s 400 meters. The top overall finishers would be signified. Altogether Ayaa’s time was second best–52.68–a new Africa record. Later, early September 1972, in Munich at the Olympics, Ayaa was again timed in 52.68 seconds when she finished third in the quarter finals and advanced to the semi-finals. She thereby equaled her personal best and Africa record. Ayaa would be eliminated from advancing to the Olympic finals when she finished 7th (52.91) in a semi-final heat.
At the pre-Olympic meet in Munich, on the second day of the meet, Ayaa additionally competed in the 200-meters and finished fifth. Results were (AP 1972: 66):
1. Marina Sidorova (Soviet Union), 23.78; 2. Karollne Kaefer (Austria), 23.99; 3. Vilma Charlton (Jamaica), 24.04; 4. Una Morris (Jamaica), 24.11; 5. Judith Ayaa (Uganda), 24.12.
Judith Ayaa would fade away from the international competition limelight after 1973. The President Idi Amin Dada handed her the Uganda flag in her capacity as team captain for the national team that was bound for Lagos for the All-Africa Games in January 1973. She was expected to win in the 400m. But possibly due to injuries, sickness, or inadequate training, she did not compete in any of the individual sprints in Lagos. But she possibly competed in the women’s 4x400m relay in which Uganda won gold.
Much more had been expected of this young elite African athlete, one of the few African women to reach such a pinnacle during that time of the dawn of women power athletes. It would take three decades for Ayaa’s Uganda national record in the 400m to be broken. After more than four decades, the present Uganda record (52.48; though it is 52.2 in 1996 by Grace Birungi, by some accounts) by Justine Bayigga, established in 2008, is only 0.2 seconds lower than the national and African record that Judith Ayaa set in 1972.
AP (August 17, 1972). “Second Day of the Sports Festival,” in “San Bernardino County Sun,” page 66.