In 1968, four athletes were sent on the long journey from East Africa to Mexico City in pursuit of Tanzania’s first-ever Olympic medal. While none returned with gold, silver or bronze, the name of one man – John Stephen Akhwari – endures to this day as a source of inspiration to countless athletes and fans in his country and around the world.
Despite hailing from the home of Mount Kilimanjaro, long-distance runner Akhwari was not used to training in the type of conditions presented by the host city. The Mexican capital was positioned 2,300m above sea level and, while world records tumbled in the sprint races, the field that lined up for the marathon faced a formidable challenge.
Akhwari was on the back foot from an early stage and began suffering from cramp as a result of the high altitude. Determined to improve his position, he was then involved in a pile-up with other athletes nearing the halfway point of the race, causing him to suffer a badly gashed and dislocated right knee, as well as a bruised shoulder.
Akhwari was advised to pull out of the race – indeed, 18 of the 75 athletes who lined up for the race would fail to complete the course – but courage and pride outweighed the intense pain he was suffering. After receiving some treatment and a bandage for his knee from trackside medics, the Tanzanian elected to continue, and finish what he had started.
“A voice calls from within to go on — and so he goes on,” said an Olympic commentator.
While Ethiopian runner Mamo Wolde, more comfortable with the altitude than most, was crossing the finish line to claim the gold medal, Akhwari was labouring in a distant last place. But his never-say-die spirit remained.
As darkness fell and the crowd filtered out of the Estadio Olímpico Universitario, a lone figure embarked on the final 800m of his journey. Television crews rushed back to their spots to capture the moment that Akhwari limped over the finish line, over an hour after Wolde’s winning time of 2:20:26.4.
When asked why he prsevered in such punishing circumstances, Akhwari uttered one of the most memorable and inspirational lines in the history of the Games: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race,” he said. “They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
While he did not take an historic Olympic medal back to Tanzania with him, Akhwari returned with an incredible story of bravery and Olympic spirit, earning him not only the respect and admiration of his peers, but also a lasting place in Olympic history.