Blast from the past: Injured mid-race and crossing the Olympic marathon finish line

Participants in the 10,000m event at the Olympic Games at Mexico City. From right: Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, Ron Clarke of Australia, Naftali Temu of Kenya, and Ronald Hill of Great Britain (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)
Participants in the 10,000m event at the Olympic Games at Mexico City. From right: Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, Ron Clarke of Australia, Naftali Temu of Kenya, and Ronald Hill of Great Britain (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: The story of the final finisher of Mexico 1968's final event: the marathon. 

The background

An Olympic Marathon is 42.195km. It is a distance that pushes the limits of human endurance. But it is even more challenging if you run a race course in a location with an altitude higher than 2,000m, like Mexico City. The lack of oxygen can be difficult for those who run long distance. And imagine if you were to fall at the mid-point of the race.

Well, that’s what happened to John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania. The marathon runner arrived in the Mexican capital as the reigning African champion. With his average times of 2:15, he had a big chance to aim for the podium. But in this race, a podium finish turned out to be the least of his worries.

The epic race

Around mid-race, Akhwari had a painful fall where he badly hurt his knee, as well as his head and shoulders. With still more than 20km to go, he was faced with a mounting challenge, but abandoning the race was not an option for the Tanzanian runner.

In a race where 18 out of the 75 starters did not finish because of the lack of oxygen, Akhwari was also struggling to breathe properly, but decided to put a strap on his knee and keep on going - no matter what.

He kept running and running but at some point, he couldn't run anymore. More than an hour after the Ethiopian winner Mamo Wolde reached the stadium, Akhwari limped his way into the Olympic Stadium.

Medals had already been awarded, and most of the spectators had left. But those who stayed were cheering as loud as they could to support him when he arrived at the track.

Lifted by the crowd, he started running again. Even with an intense knee injury, he ran the last hundreds of metres to finish the race a hero.

John Stephen Akwhari of Tanzania at the medal ceremony for the Men's Marathon at the Olympic Stadium at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Akwhari is famous for being last in the 1968 Olympic Marathon in Mexico City. Mandatory Credit: Hamish Blair /Allsport
John Stephen Akwhari of Tanzania at the medal ceremony for the Men's Marathon at the Olympic Stadium at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Akwhari is famous for being last in the 1968 Olympic Marathon in Mexico City. Mandatory Credit: Hamish Blair /Allsport

The roots of his determination

His time of 3:25:27 is inconsequential. Yes, he came last but his performance showed how far determination can bring you.

When he was asked about what prompted him to keep going, Akwhari said: "My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race."

He also added that his parents had told him: "If you start doing something, finish it. Otherwise, never start it."

He actually thought about them when he started running again in the Olympic Stadium.

No matter the pain, no matter the final position, no matter anything, he had crossed the Olympic Marathon finish line.

The fame of the final finisher

Akhwari became one of the most famous athletes of the Olympic Games Mexico 1968 and remains as a symbol of determination.

He never received an Olympic medal. However, at the Sydney 2000 Games, he was invited to award the men’s marathon podium at the medal ceremony.

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