He was struggling today, fifth in his heat -- and with a time he once could achieve walking he final few yards. But we are grateful simply to see John Akii-Bua, and to see him competing once more in the Olympics.

Some argue that Akii-Bua's last glorious athletic moment also was a point of demarcation for the Games, when they sank from the modern Olympic to the political Olympics. That was in Munich in '72 -- and he was beside himself with joy after winning the 400-meter hurdles.

On his victory lap, Akii-Bua's feet scarcely touched the ground. At times, he would glide over imaginary hurdles with the grace and force he showed while negotiating the 10 real ones earlier. Not long after that, 11 Israeli athletes were murdered -- and the Games never have been the same.

Nor has Akii-Bua.

Many of his closest Athletic friends -- among them the American who now dominates his event, Edwin Moses -- were deeply concerned in the late '70s that Akii-Bua might have been a victim of Idi Amin's terror in his native Uganda.

He nearly was.

"I was a virtual prisoner," he said of a period that began not long after he was denied the chance to defend his Olympic title in the Montreal Games by the Black African boycott. "Not in a jail, but unable to move around the country -- or out of it.

"I lost five brothers and a sister in the fighting and a lot of other relatives. Amin's security guards stopped all my mail. I owe a lot to journalists for writing about me still while I was in such trouble. For asking in print where I was and how I was.

"If I had not been a known person, I probably would not be around."

Akii-Bua escaped in March of last year, then spent a transitional month in prison in Nairobi before Puma shoe company officials interceded and helped move him to a small German town near Nuremburg.

"I would rather not speak to much of the past," he said. "Not of politics.

My mind has been at rest for the last year."

Still, politics is partly why he ran so poorly during the first heat today, for until about June the Ugandan government was going to support President Carter's boycott of the Games. There was an excellent chance Akii-Bua would be denied yet another Olympic moment.

"The winters are hard to train in where I live," he said. "And then for four or six weeks I had no hope. My will was distroyed, you see, my motiation was gone. But then the (Ugandan) government was removed and a military commission established. They knew how much sportmen had suffered under Amin. They wanted to send us here.

"But there were only four or five weeks left until the Games. I had to do what amounted to months of training in a few weeks. Imagine meeting a tank with a rifle. You don't have a chance. You know it's going to kill you, but you keep trying to dodges as many bullets as possible."

Because journalists helped keep him alive, Akii-Bua is a most accommodating interview. Still, he has his priorities here. We would talk under the stands of Lenin Central Stadium almost immediately after his race today, but only if I would help him with stretching exercises.

"You are taking my time," he reminded gently. So while I pressed his fully-extended legs back and forth over his head while he lay flat on the cement, he said "In '76, I had trained well. I had slight hamstring pull, but it was fully recovered for the Games. I was in Montreal a week before we pulled out.

I could have made him (Moses, who set a world record in the event at Montreal), either run even faster -- or made him run slower."

How can you make anyone run slower?

Akii-Bua looked up, his leg still moving like a pump handle, and said, "Mind preparation. The easier you take a race, the greater you destory the opponent. Am I making that clear?"


But his own mind clearly was on edge just then. His first words after the introductory handshake had been: "I don't want excuses. I want to tell the truth. Most people think that at 30 I can't run.

"That's not true. I refute that. I'm not too old to run."

He had run 50.87 seconds and finished one place off what would have automatically qualified him for Friday's semifinals. He would have to wait to see if his time was among the four best also-rans. But he was confident, and he made it -- barely.

With Moses and West German Harald Schmid absent because of the boycott, no one here has come within a half-second of Akii-Bua's personal best of 47.82 seconds. He did that eight years ago. Now he is rarely within two seconds of it himself.

"I can make 49.5 or 49.6 in training," he said. "But in competition I can't break 50 seconds. I don't know why. I have 72 hours to find a way to correct it."

In the truth, he has less than 24. The semifinals are Friday evening -- and considering his ordeal the last several years, making the Saturday final would be an extraordinary accomplishment.

"I'm sure I'm in the semifinals," he kept repeating. "I know my position is all right."

He talked of his physical condition, saying: "I've built up tremendous strength, but not much speed. I'm 80 percent strength and 20 percent speed.

"It's not balanced. I can't help it, but I don't have that 50-50 balance I need.

He was standing on one foot. Now the other leg was atop a hurdle and he was stretching his rangy body up and down -- and still talking, still reassuring himself, still saying now and then: "I can still run."

But he also said, "When I run, I don't think of times. I go out to get there first in the finals. But if somebody else gets the first, then I shake his hand. No problem." CAPTION:

Picture, Steve Ovett wins his preliminary heat in the 800 meters in 1:49.4. AP