This week’s tale centres on an event whose origins have, admittedly somewhat debatably, been traced back some two and a half millennia: the marathon. Aspects of the marathon’s history as an event will be the subject of a future instalment. For the purposes of this week’s journey, suffice it to say that the event was part of the first modern day Olympics in 1896 and has been a feature of every Games since, albeit with varying course lengths until 1921, when the International Amateur Athletic Federation standardised the distance at 26 miles and 385 yards (used to this day). The Games preceding this ruling had seen seven different course lengths, ranging from 24.8 miles to 26.7 miles. The seemingly arbitrary distance matched that used at the 1908 Games in London, originally set at 26 miles but increased by 385 yards so that the finish line would be in front of the Royal Box at Windsor Castle, enabling the Princess of Wales and her children (six in all) to witness the spectacle’s culmination.
The marathon had, until 1960, been the preserve of predominantly European and British athletes. The 1960 Games in Rome heralded the rise of North African athletes as long distance specialists, initiated by Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia winning the marathon and Africa’s first Olympic gold medal, a feat that he repeated in Tokyo four years later. In 1968, with the African distance renaissance gathering momentum, and at the age of 36, he arrived in Mexico City seeking to achieve what no other runner had done before or has accomplished since – three gold medals in one event over three Games. More about him in a future instalment.
The focal figure of this week’s instalment is John Steven Akhwari, a Tanzanian athlete who sought to break Bikila’s (and Ethopia’s) dominance of the Olympic marathon. His responsibility was further intensified by the fact that this was only Tanzania’s second Games and he would thus necessarily act as a trailblazer for future Tanzanians. He was 30 years old.
As he lined up at the start, he faced some formidable competition. Aside from Bikila (who had set the marathon world record between his Olympic golds), he faced Derek Clayton of Australia, who followed a brutal training schedule (at times covering 160 miles a week) and who had the previous year become the first person to break the 2h10 marathon barrier. The conditions suited the North Africans, as the race set off in the early afternoon, in the face of stifling heat and at an altitude of almost 1.5 miles.
Bikila had broken his foot a few days previously and, with an injury to his right knee, pulled out at 10 miles. The heat and altitude were such that he would be joined by sixteen other non-finishers (almost a quarter of the field). Bikila’s reasons for abandoning his attempt were understandable. Akhwari too was handed a plausible and unfortunate excuse to quit. Relatively early on, he fell catastrophically, hitting his head, severely cutting his knee, dislocating his knee joint and, to compound his agony, enduring a trampling by fellow competitors who had been unable to avoid his fallen body.
The race was ultimately won by another Ethiopian, Mamo Wolde, in little over 2h20m (more than ten minutes slower than the then world record). 55 other athletes crossed the finish line, five of whom failed to break three hours, such were the appalling conditions. The closing ceremonies were wrapped up shortly after 7pm. The spectators and athletes who remained began collecting their belongings and preparing to leave the stadium.
The 1968 Games, however, had one last moment of magic in store. The announcer asked those present to remain in their seats. Many in the stadium could see a police motorcade on the street outside, encircling an athlete whose progress was unimaginably slow. They stayed and waited with baited breath. Given that Wolde had won over an hour earlier, and seventeen athletes had pulled out (thus reducing the stigma of doing so), it seemed unthinkable that anyone could still be out on the course.
Minutes later, his body broken but his indomitable spirit intact, Akhwari entered the stadium, his lap around the the 400m track thereafter widely considered as the most memorable last place finish in history. With his knee bandaged, and racked with exhaustion, his progress was slow but determined. The crowd were impressed, and they let him know as much. What began as a slow clap soon progressed into a crescendo of applause and a standing ovation. As inspiring and memorable as Akhwari’s effort was, it is the echo of his words, moreso than the image of his struggle, for which he is most remembered:
Back in Tanzania, Akhwari faced questions over the outcome of the race, but always replied calmly, never considering his failure to win a medal a cause for embarrassment. On the contrary, his family members praised his efforts, as he had acted on their advice, “If you start doing something, finish it. Otherwise, never start it.”
Akhwari competed for a decade after the 1968 Games, finishing fifth in the marathon at the 1970 Commonwealth Games. He continues as a coach at the John Stephen Akhwari Athletic Foundation, an organization which supports Tanzanian athletes training for the Olympic Games. He was invited to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and to Beijing as a goodwill ambassador ahead of the 2008 Games.