An Olympic marathon is a little over 26 miles long. The race starts and finishes in the Olympic Stadium. The rest of it is run through the city streets.
A world-class athlete can complete the marathon in a little over 2 hours. But that wasn’t the case for Stephen Akhwari in 1968.
I first heard his story 20 years after it happened. I will never forget it. And it inspires me to this day.
It was a two-minute segment in an hour-long documentary I saw just before the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary. As I watched, I started to get goose bumps, by the end of the two minutes, I had tears in my eyes.
(Which, to be honest, isn’t unusual for me. When I go to the movies I’ve gotta’ have three things. A large popcorn, a small soda and big box of tissues. And that’s just for the trailers lol.)
The story is about an Olympic track and field hero, John Stephen Akhwari, from Tanzania.
His is my favourite story of being victorious at the Olympics. He ran in the marathon at the 1968 Olympic Summer Games in Mexico City, and finished last.
Anyway, John Akhwari started the race with the rest of the pack. But somehow, somewhere along the course he hurt his leg. Badly. But he kept going. He finally hobbled in to the stadium an hour after the winner of the race had been declared.
As the story unfolded, my eyes were glued to the screen. Earlier, the stadium had been full of tens of thousands of fans. Now, only a few hundred were left. And it was dark.
The lone runner kinda’ stumbled around the track. His leg was bloody and bandaged. He looked like he was in a lot of pain. But as he made his way around the stadium, alone, the remaining fans roared in approval.
Winners? Or Losers?
He seemed puzzled by the question, and he answered: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
He may have finished last in the 1968 Olympic marathon, but John Stephen Akhwari’s courage and determination won the hearts of millions of people around the world on that night.
Twenty years later, it won mine. Another 25 years later, it still inspires me.
Sometime between now and then, I saw an ad for the Olympic Movement in a magazine. A fuzzy picture of John Akhwari in the 1968 Olympic Marathon dominated the page. I tore it out and pinned it up on the bulletin board in my office. It’s still there.
Well, that’s not quite true – it’s actually in storage with the rest of my “stuff,” waiting to be rescued once I find a place to live the next chapter of my life.
But the image, more than 40 years after John Stephen Akhwari finished last in the Olympic marathon, is branded in my memory. Now it’s on this blog, along with the video clip that pulled at my heartstrings in 1988.
It reminds me today, and every day, that you don’t have to finish first to be a winner.
You can be a winner, we can all be winners, even if we finish last.