Recently, David Mathis shared John Piper’s advice for Christians about how to watch the Olympic Games.
This prompts me to share my all-time favourite story from among the many inspirational episodes of Olympic history.
It’s the story of John Stephen Akhwari and his marathon run.
John Piper suggests that in 1 Cor 9:23-27, the Apostle Paul took the well-known Olympic games and…
taught the Christians to transpose them into a different level, and to see in the games a reality very different than everyone else is seeing. He [i.e. Paul] said in effect, “The games are played at this level of reality. They run at this level. They box at this level. They train and practice and deny themselves at this level. They set their sights on gold at this level.
“Now I want you to see all that at another level. I want you to transpose the temporary struggles and triumphs of the Olympic Games onto a different level of reality — the level of spiritual life and eternity and God. When you see the athletes run, see another kind of running…”
John Stephen Akhwari was a world class distance runner in the 1960s and early 70s. And he gave us a kind of courageous running. And at another level, his example also points Christians to another kind of running – running all the way into eternity.
But notwithstanding 1 Cor 9:24-25, Akhwari’s story is not about winning gold.
Akhwari’s famous run happened in the year of my birth, and so I only know about it from the history books. (Wikipedia’s article was a good starting point in this case.)
Akhwari was competing in the Olympic Marathon in Mexico City. Approximately 19 km into the 42 km race, there was jostling between some runners and he fell badly. He wounded his knee and his shoulder also hit the pavement hard against the pavement. In fact, his leg was bleeding and his knee was apparently dislocated. In one account I read, medical staff urged him to withdraw.
However Akhwari continued running. Actually, it was a mix of walking and a slow limping run at points. He finished last among the 57 competitors who completed the race. The winner of the marathon had finished in 2:20:26. Akhwari finished well over an hour later, in 3:25:27.
By then, the sun had set, and there were only a few thousand people left in the stadium. But of course, as he finally crossed the finish line a cheer came from the small crowd. A television crew was diverted from a medal ceremony and caught this courageous man’s agonising finish. You can see it here on Youtube.
And here’s the bit we all need to hear. When interviewed later and asked why he ignored the advice to pull out and continued running, Akhwari said,
“My country did not send me 10,000 miles just to start the race; they sent me to finish the race.”1
As a matter of fact, of the 75 who started the 1968 Olympic marathon, 18 others did pull out. And really, no one even remembers the name of the gold medal winner that year. (In case you were wondering, it was Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia).
But we remember and honour Akhwari because he finished the race in the most difficult circumstances.
Some have suggested John Stephen Akhwari has the honour of the greatest last place finish ever.
By now Christians who heed Piper’s advice to enjoy the Olympics but also transpose them to another level should know what Scripture I am thinking about. This time it’s not from 1 Corinthians 9. It’s not about being a winner.
It’s the older Apostle Paul, under house arrest of the Romans, facing the prospect of trial and death, perhaps just a little lonely. But in 2 Timothy 4:7 he says those famous words…
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
It’s not how you start the race that counts. It’s that you finish.
God entered you in the race when he opened your eyes to the glory and grace of Christ… The Christ who died for you and has “destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light in the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10). And God has set his Spirit on you so that you might finish the race (Ephesians 1:13-14).
Christian friends, wherever you’re at today – if you’ve wandered or got distracted, if you’ve fallen and are hurting badly, whether it’s your own fault or others have knocked you around – let John Stephen Akhwari encourage you: Finish the race!
Walking or running, stumbling or limping, it doesn’t matter. Finish the race.
Fix your eyes on Jesus and finish the race.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. [Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV84]
- Some reports have a version of his quote at 5,000 miles, one mentions 7,000 miles, and some omit the mention of distance altogether. As the distance between Dar Es Salaam to Mexico City is just over 9,500 miles or 15,000 km as the crow flies, I will stick with 10,000. ↩