John Akhwari and His Last Place Finish: The Source of One of the Greatest Sports Soundbites of All Time

John Akhwari's bandaged leg
John Stephen Akhwari walking his final lap

Mamo Wolde had already completed the 42-kilometer marathon in the oxygen-thin air of Mexico City, continuing Ethiopian dominance in the footsteps of Abebe Bikila. Wolde had already received his gold medal, and was likely resting somewhere inside the stadium when a humming murmur turned into joyful cheers on that evening of October 20, 1968.

A man was walking into the Estadio Olimpico Universitario, his right leg heavily bandaged. He limped decidedly, the result of falling close to the halfway point in the marathon while jockeying for position. He had dislocated his knee and banged up his shoulder in the collision with the pavement. He got treated, and kept running despite the pain, and the cramps.

While 17 in the 54-man field did not complete this most grueling of the long-distance competitions, John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, was determined to finish. As intoned in this somewhat over-the-top narration of Akhwari’s final steps in this video below, “a voice calls from within to go on, and so he goes on.”

Afterwards it was written, today we have seen a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in the human spirit, a performance that gives true dignity to sport, a performance that lifts sport out of the category of grown men playing a game, a performance that gives meaning to the word courage. All honor to John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania.

When asked why he kept running, Akhwari gave one of the most memorable quotes in sporting history: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles away to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish it.”

John Stephen Akhwari