|Frank Wright, Ph.D.
President & CEO
John Stephen Akhwari is an Olympic legend. In the 1960s he was an elite middle and long distance runner. He represented his native Tanzania in competitions all across Africa and was the favorite to win the Marathon (26 miles, 385 yards) at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
Arriving in Mexico Akhwari was in peak physical condition. He was well-rested, he was ready and his expectations were very high.
The Olympic Marathon began in the afternoon of October 20, 1968. As Akhwari took his place for the start of the race, here was a disciplined runner with enormous talent and great determination. He would desperately need every one of those qualities before the race was through.
With the sharp report of the starter’s pistol, the runners began their long journey in the warm Mexican sun and John Steven Akhwari moved deftly to the front of the pack.
Four hours later, there were only a few thousand spectators still milling about in Olympic Stadium. In the cool of the lengthening dusk, the last of the exhausted marathon runners were receiving treatment at first aid stations. Some were being carried off in stretchers. The winner of the race, an Ethiopian, has crossed the finish line more than an hour before.
As the last of the spectators prepared to leave, they were startled by the sounds of police sirens approaching the stadium gate. As the gate opened, everyone was soon to realize what was happening. Into the stadium came a solitary figure. Here was the last man to finish the Olympic Marathon, and it was John Stephen Akhwari.
Earlier in the race Akhwari was severely injured in a collision and fall. Urged to quit and seek treatment, he refused. Bloodied and bandaged he continued on, with each step of his shuffling gait rewarding him with sharp pain.
Shaking and grimacing, he hobbled around the stadium track and finished the race. The remaining spectators rose and cheered him as though he had won. After completing his arduous journey, Akhwari limped slowly off the field without even acknowledging the continuing applause.
Later he was asked why he continued in spite of his injury and knowing that he had no hope of winning. John Stephen Akhwari replied: “My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 7,000 miles to finish it.”
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The writer of Hebrews uses the metaphor of a race to describe our journey as Christians in this world (Hebrews Chapter 12). And the race in view there is certainly a marathon – a life-long exertion of faith.
Among the many nuggets impounded within this metaphor, five should command our regular attention. The first is the directive to run. We often refer to our faith journey as our Christian “walk.” But here the exhortation is to run. Like any physical race, living out our faith requires great effort. It requires a spiritual striving. It requires discipline, exertion and determination. It isn’t always easy, but we must run nonetheless!
Second, we find great comfort in the writer’s description that the race is “marked out for us.” God has a plan for our lives. To discover it requires us to run the course before us today. We so often suffer from a restless search for God’s future will for us. With that focus we often ignore and neglect the very thing before us now. Run the race marked out for you!
Third is the admonition to persist. We are told to run the race “with perseverance.” This is the essence of marathon running. It is also the heart of the Christian life. It is for us to press on, to continue to serve, to keep the faith!
Fourth, we must maintain proper perspective. Here the writer is more direct: “Fix your eyes on Jesus.” Remember why you are running the race and remember who it is that enables you to succeed. Consider Him so that you will not grow weary and lose heart!
Last, note the writer’s emphasis on how many have run the race before us. He refers to them as a “great cloud of witnesses.” These witnesses are not just observers. These witnesses have walked where we have walked; they have run the same race that we are running. Not only that, they have finished the course!
All of which reminds me of the heritage we have in NRB. We walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before us. Not only do we walk in their footsteps, it is safe to say that we could not even do the work we do today had not these faithful men and women preceded us.
Rather than wining the Olympic Marathon, John Stephen Akhwari finished bloodied, bandaged and in last place – but he finished. Where are you in your journey of faith and service? Hopefully not bloodied and bandaged, but if so, take heart! God has called you to finish the race and will welcome you Himself with the everlasting arms of the Savior.