In 1968 the Summer Olympics were held in Mexico City. This was the first Olympiad held in a Spanish speaking country, the only one held in Latin America and the first to broadcast the closing ceremonies in color. The high altitude of the city caused many athletes to struggle in their efforts, and while there were many memorable events during this Olympic event these are a few of the most notable: while receiving their medals, Tommie Smith and John Carlos infamously raised their fists and lowered their head during the playing of the American anthem; Bob Beamon set a world record in the long jump of 8.9 meters (29.199 feet) – a record that stood for twenty-three years; Dick Fosbury won the high jump with his now-famous “fosbury flop,” which has since become the event standard.
Another notable athlete at the 1968 Summer Olympics was marathon runner John Stephen Ahkwari of Tanzania—a runner you have probably never heard of. John Stephen finished last in the marathon event at 3:25:27—about an hour after the first runner crossed the finish line with a time of 2:20:26. During the race at about the eighteen mile marker, tired from the run and altitude, John Stephen fell seriously cutting his knee and leg. Rather than quit, he allowed his knee and leg to be bandaged – and then he painfully resumed the race. He would run for a short distance, and then walk when the pain was too much, and then run again – repeating this cycle over and over. The marathon event was late in the day and the runners all finished before dark—except John Stephen. When he finally arrived through the dark at the stadium the few spectators there were getting seating for the next event. They couldn’t help but notice John Stephen as he limped-ran his final laps of the race in the stadium—and they began to applaud him as they realized that even though he was the last runner he was determined to finish the race. He was the last of 57 runners in that marathon event in the 1968 Olympics, but he finished the race set before him. There were 74 who started but never finished.
After John Stephen finished running and received medical care, he was asked, “Why did you keep going?” His simple response was,“You don’t understand. My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race, they sent me to finish it.” To spiritualize the thought, God has not called us to start the race of salvation, but to finish it. Our race is about staying the course, yielding to God, growing in His character and crossing the finish line no matter what happens before that. Organized sports is one of those arenas of life that can hold great lessons for a Christian. The apostle Paul wrote in Hebrews 12:1 that we are to “…run with patience….” He expanded this thought in Philippians 3:14 encouraging us to keep pressing toward the mark of God’s calling, and reminding us that while we can experience hindrances from others, only we can make the final decision as to whether we give up or continue (Galatians 5:7).
Any Olympic race is but a temporary achievement. We can draw great lessons from those achievements at times, but it is more important to remember the imperishable crown we are racing for. “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it…. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown…. I discipline my body and bring it into subjection lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified,” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Rather, let us be like the true faithful down through time, who can say “…I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” (2 Timothy 4:7).