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They Sent Me To Finish The Race
18 September 2012, 19:06
Filed under: Films | Tags: , , , ,

John Stephen Akhwari ran many marathons. He even finished one in 2:15:05, though that was in 1970. In Mexico City in 1968, he was not nearly so fast. 57 of the 75 runners who’d started the race, finished the race. Akhwari was the last, by nearly 20 minutes.

Often, I look to sports for inspiration. Sport often challenges people, exposing the heart of who they are.

If I look back into my own mediocre sports performances, I think back most fondly on a race in which I also finished last. I don’t know that I’d seen Akhwari’s story when I first ran the high hurdles in competition. It was only a 60-yard race, since I was in the 7th grade in spring of 1979. I’ve always loved the Olympics, so it’s possible that I’d seen Bud Greenspan’s documentary on Akhwari, likely during a Saturday of Wide World of Sports. I’m slow and I’ve always been slow, but fortunately, in practice, I’d done well in hurdling, even out-racing a faster teammate with me going over high hurdles and he over low ones. Nonetheless, when I got to my first high hurdle in my first race, I hit the hurdle and fell down. I have no recollection of my thoughts, expect that I got up and ran toward the second hurdle. I hit that one and fell down again. Undeterred, I stood and raced to the third hurdle, falling down a third time. Something got me up again and I managed to complete the race without hitting any more hurdles.

I wish I could say that eventually I won some high hurdle races, but I didn’t. I’ll always have the knowledge that I did finish, despite everything.

John Akhwari had far “higher” hurdles in his race. Mexico City sits at 7,350 feet (2,240 meters) above sea level and the thin air holds far less oxygen. Walking can be stressful for those not used to the altitude. Akhwari hadn’t trained at that altitude and was cramping up. Around 19 kilometers, there was some jockeying among the runners and Akhwari fell, injuring both his knee and then his shoulder when it hit the pavement. His knee was dislocated and he was bandaged. He kept running. Other runners passed him until he was running alone.

As he neared the stadium in the darkness, the lights of escorting police motorcycles lit a small area ahead of him. Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia had finished an hour earlier. His bandages looked tattered and he alternated between an awkward walk-run and a spirited jog. The pain is evident in his movement. As he entered the brightly-lit stadium, the few remaining spectators and staff applauded. His Tanzanian jersey with the number 36 on it hung on him limply, as he moved around the track, blood dripping from his badly injured knee. After nearly 3 and a half hours (3:25:27), nearly 20 minutes after the 56th finisher, he crossed the line, a testament to determination.

We’re fortunate that they sent a film crew from the medal ceremony out to follow Akhwari. Bud Greenspan’s film tells the story vividly. Akhwari was invited to Beijing by film-makers who’d seen it and served as a torch-bearer in Dar-es-Salaam for the relay to Beijing in 2008.

When asked why he did not drop out of the race, at first, he seemed confused by the question. “Nchi yangu ya Tanzania hikunituma hapa Mexico kuanza mbio..bali imenituma hapa kumaliza mbio.”

“My country, Tanzania, did not send me here to Mexico to start the race. They sent me to finish.”

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1 Comment so far
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Comment by Taren




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