- Published on Sunday, 29 July 2012 00:23
- Written by EMMANUEL MUGA
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As Kenya Broadcasting corporation (KBC) TV was building up to the opening ceremony, focusing on the country’s past legends and current stars, one non-Kenyan had to be featured for the programme to be relevant.
This is Tanzania ’s John Stevene Akhwari, who was described as the father of Olympic Spirit of Never Quit, believer in fair play and a person who embodies the values of Olympic Games that celebrate humanity. But as Olympic atmosphere was shaping up, this 74-year-old role model to young athletes and inspirational icon of nations was secluded away in a cold village in Mbulu District.
He wasn’t invited to attend Team Tanzania was being flagged-off ceremony at Kempiski Hotel in Dar es Salaam ahead of their trip to London nor did he merit a mention, when the Tanzania Olympic Committee (TOC) Secretary General, Filibert Bayi, introduced the country’s Olympians.
Marathoner Akhwari represented Tanzania at the Olympic Games in Mexico. He was in the leading pack at 30 kilometre point, when something happened to him. He cramped up due to the high altitude of the city. He had trained in Dar es Salaam in run up to the games. He fell badly wounding his knee but he continued running, finishing last among the 57 competitors who completed the race (75 had started). The winner of the marathon, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, finished in 2:20:26. Akhwari finished in 3:25:27.
This was subsequently said of him: Out of the cold darkness he came. John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania entered at the far end of the stadium, pain hobbling his every step, his leg bloody and bandaged. The winner of the marathon had been declared over an hour earlier. Only a few spectators remained. But the lone runner pressed on. “As he crossed the finish line, the small crowd roared out its appreciation. Afterward, a reporter asked the runner why he had not retired from the race, since he had no chance of winning. He seemed confused by the question.
Finally, he answered: “My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me to finish.” This famous quote is what made Akhwari famous and adored around the world except in his country, Tanzania. Sitting in his small sitting room of his generationold family house, Mzee Akhwari holds a collection of trophies, certificates, newspaper cuttings and medals he won in the 60s as he narrates his long athletics career that spanned 18 years.
Mzee Akhwari still remembers what happened before and during those famous Olympic Games in 1968. “We participated in a regional athletics competition in Kampala before going to Mexico . In Kampala I came first, beating Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, who was eventual winner in Mexico ,” he told me. “In Mexico I was confident of winning the race. We started the race but after 30 kilometres my muscles cramped and I fell down.
First aid people came and bandaged me and asked me to abandon the race and be taken to a standby ambulance. I refused, I told them I will run slowly till I finish the race,” he says. “There were few people remaining in the stadium, they applauded me, then a reporter came to me and asked me why I had not abandoned the race, I said my country did not send me to start the race but to finish it.” The world was awed but his country did not take note.
“I remained in Mexico for two weeks undergoing treatment before returning. But upon arrival, nobody bothered to ask us what had happened and nobody cared about the circumstances of our participation. This country only appreciates you when you come back with a medal,” he adds. In run up to the games, the team trained at low attitude in Dar es Salaam , which was a factor in its failure, says Mzee Akhwari.
To him, Tanzania does not learn from past mistakes. The Team Tanzania for Olympic Games also trained at sea level in Kibaha instead of preparing at high attitude to master endurance and speed. His country does not care but the world does. He was invited to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, where he was honoured for his Olympic spirit. He went to Beijing as a goodwill ambassador in preparation for the 2008 Games.
He was the Olympic Torchbearer in Dar es Salaam in run up to the Games in Beijing , was also invited to Mali by Africa Athletics Association last year to receive an award. Mzee Akhwari says he was also invited to South Africa in 2010 in run up to the World Cup but his invitation was delayed. He had been invited in recognition of his inspirational role he could play during the tournament. How did his long athletics journey start and end?
In 1958 a colonial district commissioner in Mbulu organized activities to celebrate Queen’s Coronation Day. The 20-year-old Akhwari turned up to participate in a running event. He participated in a 14-km race and upon finishing it, he was given a bottle of Coke. From then on there was no turning back.
After Independence in 1962 he represented Tanzania at world athletics competition in Athens, Greece , where he won a silver medal and went on to win medals in regional and Commonwealth Games before his Mexico Olympic debut. In 1980 he was the manager of Team Tanzania that participated in the Olympic Games in Moscow.
The team went on to win silver medals through Filibert Bayi (3000m steeple chase) and Suleiman Nyambui (5000m). “I trained the team for one year before the Games, you could see why we came back with medals,” he says. This is John Stevene Akhwari, an Olympic legend and a patriot, who is recognized around the world but hardly receives a mention in Tanzania.