During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, John Stephen Akhwari placed last in the marathon, yet major sports magazines named him as one of two “Top International Olympians” that year. While losing the race, Mr. Akhwari won the admiration of untold thousands because he embodied the spirit of a true Olympian as he finished despite setbacks.
Track and field athletes that year faced a common challenge when they arrived in Mexico City: its altitude. At 7,350 feet, it was the highest elevation at which any Summer Olympics had been held. From Mbulu, Tanzania, where the altitude is -3.85 feet, Mr. Akhwari suffered leg cramps early in the race. Yet, he continued to run.
He collided with another runner and fell, dislocating and badly cutting a knee and injuring a shoulder. He got up and he continued to run.
By sunset, most of his 56 fellow competitors had finished the race. Wounded and in pain, he continued to run. Most spectators had left the arena where the marathon’s finish line was located.
Those who remained noticed lights flashing on a vehicle escorting a lone runner and cheered as the Tanzanian hobbled along the track in his own victory lap to cross the finish line more than an hour after the winner.
It’s doubted that anyone present realized they were witnessing a great moment in the history of the Olympics. Many journalists and people posting on various media have told the story of Mr. Akhwari’s personal victory. In a New York Times article upon the death of Bud Greenspan in 2010 is this account:
“Mr. Greenspan, an eight-time Emmy Award winner, often distilled his view of the Olympics into an incident from the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. He was shooting the marathon, which was won by an Ethiopian, Mamo Wolde.
But what mesmerized him was John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, … When Mr. Greenspan asked him why he continued to the end, Mr. Akhwari was incredulous at such a question. ‘My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race,’ Mr. Greenspan often recalled him saying. ‘My country sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race’” (Richard Sandomir, www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/sports/olympics/26greenspan.html).
The apostle Paul said, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain” (1 Corinthians 9:24).
In the Old Testament, we read, “… the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
In his Sunday morning address during the October 2013 general conference, President Thomas S. Monson said, “The difficulties which come to us present us with the real test of our ability to endure. A fundamental question remains to be answered by each of us: Shall I falter, or shall I finish? Some do falter as they find themselves unable to rise above their challenges. To finish involves enduring to the very end of life itself.
In his April 1998 general conference address, Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke of John Akhwari’s determination to finish his race: “He knew who he was — an athlete representing the country of Tanzania. He knew his purpose — to finish the race. He knew that he had to endure to the finish, so that he could honorably return home to Tanzania. Our mission in life is much the same. We were not sent by Father in Heaven just to be born. We were sent to endure and return to Him with honor.
“Dwelling in the world is part of our mortal test. The challenge is to live in the world yet not partake of the world’s temptations which will lead us away from our spiritual goals. When one of us gives up and succumbs to the wiles of the adversary, we may lose more than our own soul. Our surrender could cause the loss of souls who respect us in this generation. Our capitulation to temptation could affect children and families for generations to come.”
President Monson has told each of us that we are runners in the race of life. “Comforting is the fact that there are many runners,” he said. “Reassuring is the knowledge that our Eternal Scorekeeper is understanding. Challenging is the truth that each must run. But you and I do not run alone. That vast audience of family, friends and leaders will cheer our courage, will applaud our determination as we rise from our stumblings and pursue our goal. ... Let us shed any thought of failure. ... Let us seek; let us obtain the prize prepared for all, even exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God (“Happiness — The Universal Quest,” Ensign, October 1993).
Elder Richard B. Wirthlin, in his 1989 October general conference address, said, “An obvious parallel between life and a marathon is the necessity to run diligently and endure to the end.
“Among his final words to his people, Nephi told them: ‘And now, … after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; … Ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ … and endure to the end’” (2 Nephi 31:19-20).
John Akhwari had prepared for his race. He trained and conditioned his body and mind so he was able to finish it.
Enduring to the end is an underpinning doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To endure to the end, we must prepare and train – not by running a race route before a cheering crowd but by studying and following the path the Lord has set. We must know His doctrine and teachings.
Through the Atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we can get up and continue our “race in life” even if we stumble and fall along the way.