“Some champions finish last, winners are not the only heroes.”
This philosophy taken from the Olympic Creed: The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well “was amplified by a Tanzanian runner in the marathon race of the 1968 Games of the Olympics held in Mexico City.
In that drama-filled 42-plus kilometer run, the legendary Ethiopean runner Abebe Bikila, who had won the previous marathon in Rome and Tokyo, was eyeing for an unprecedented three-peat and was, in fact, on the way to succeeding.
At the time, Bikila had the distinction as the only runner to ever win the marathon twice in-a-row. And he looked strong clinging into the lead pack at 17 kilometers, more than one-third into the finish.
Then suddenly and unexpectedly, he stepped off the roadway and quit the race. No one except to his coach, Negusse Roba, knew he was suffering from a bone fracture in his left leg for several weeks prior to the Games. It was later after the event that Roba told in a press conference of his ward’s injury.
Bikila’s teammate, Mamo Wolde, knew, too, of the injury and when Bikila left the race, he ran the way the defending champion would have, won and succeeded in gifting Ethiopia its third straight marathon victory, which he later dedicated to Bikila.
The drama of the 1968 marathon race didn’t end in Bikila’s quitting and Wolde’s winning though. It continued a little more than an hour later with just a few thousands remained in the gallery which saw the last man to cross the finish line amidst whistles, motorcycle sirens and red and green lights.
John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, his legs bloody and heavily bandaged and wincing his every step, entered the stadium, greeted by silence from the crowd that slowly turned into loud steady applause.
Akhwari, the last finisher, was made to make the traditional victory but painful run around the oval, as the cheers grew louder. The trek around the track seemed interminable until finally, he hobbled into the arms of his coach and teammates as the crowd roared in celebration for the real “winner.”
One sportswriter paid tribute to the man and wrote: “Today, we have seen a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in the human spirit … a performance that gives true meaning to sport … a performance that lift sport out of the category of grown men playing at games … a performance that gives meaning to the word courage … all honor to John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania.”
When asked afterwards why he endured the pain and why, since there was no chance of winning, he did not retire from the race, Akhwari, appearing perplexed retorted: “I don’t think you understand. My country did not send me to Mexico City just to start the race. They sent me to finish the race.”