Just under a quarter of the field in the men’s marathon at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 failed to finish. From the city’s punishing altitude to the roaring pace set by eventual winner Mamo Wolde from Ethiopia, it was a brutal race. But John Stephen Akhwari, a 26-year-old hailing from farming stock in Tanzania, was going to make it to the finish line.
“I never thought of stopping. My only objective was to finish the race,” Akhwari said, 52 years after inspiring the watching world with his unflinching determination. The steel is still there in the voice as he describes how, first, he battled through cramp.
“I started to feel the cramps when I had covered about 30km of the [42km race],” he explained, before adding simply: “It was very painful.”
Like many of the runners, Akhwari had not had access to any high-altitude training. Mexico City’s 2,250m elevation caused even the most refined of muscles to jerk into debilitating spasms.
Akhwari, the reigning African men’s marathon champion, had arrived at the 1968 Games fit and in form. He had pedigree on the international circuit too, having finished second in the iconic Athens marathon in 1963 – a performance he now labels as the “best” of his career. But, despite the cramp instantly laying waste to his personal ambitions of securing a shock Olympic medal, he found a way to battle on.
As a melee of runners jockeyed for position, Akhwari was sent crashing to the ground by a stray limb. Despite the octogenarian now cheerily asserting that he sustained “minor injuries”, reports from 1968 suggest that time has glossed over the severe pain the Tanzanian must have felt. Akhwari not only smashed his shoulder on the pavement and gashed his knee, he also dislocated that joint.
But, after receiving “first aid” as he puts it, the bandaged and bound Akhwari set off for the finish line.
Those on the streets of the Mexican capital soon realised what they were seeing.
“The crowd was clapping and cheering; they encouraged me a lot to finish the race,” said the man who shuffled into the Olympic Stadium almost exactly 60 minutes after winner Wolde had glided through the gates. Several thousand of the spectators had perhaps heard the whispers that something special was about to happen, and remained in place.
“As I entered the stadium, the only thing I was thinking was to get to the finish line. I was very surprised by the reaction of the people to my efforts. Even an hour after the winner had entered the stadium, I was still met by a lot of people,” a still happily surprised Akhwari confirmed.
“I particularly remember a nine-year-old boy who was with his parents at the place I entered the stadium. He was so inspired by my dedication and my passion he promised his parents that one day, when he grew up, he would visit me in Tanzania, and he kept his promise.”
This defiant man’s description of how he felt once he finally permitted his legs to collapse is instructive in its simplicity.
“I was obviously very happy because I managed to finish the race, but also I experienced some pains in my body due to the fall. At the finish line, a journalist asked why I did not give up when I knew I had no chance to win. My answer was, ‘My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race’.”
It is a quote that has come to define Akhwari. The Olympic Movement has certainly never forgotten it, or him. In 2000, he was asked to present the men’s marathon medals at the Sydney 2000 Games – something he felt “privileged and honoured” to do. Eight years later, he was at the Beijing 2008 Games as a goodwill ambassador.
Now retired from his farm in rural Tanzania, Akhwari remains endearingly proud that “people are still talking” about what he did all those years ago.
“There are a lot of people who still talk to me about running, and the Olympics especially – people who are inspired by my history,” he said. “I think people are still so interested because of the passion and the efforts I put [into] finishing the race, regardless of the hardships I went through.”
He is right.