The teeming metropolis of Mexico City is a world away from the East African sands of Tanzania, where John Stephen Akhwari lived. 5,000 miles to be exact. But that’s exactly where he found himself on 20th October 1968, competing for his country in the Summer Olympics as a marathon runner.
The atmosphere that day was palpable. The seating capacity of the stadium had been increased from 70,000 to 83,700 to accommodate the throngs of spectators. Akhwari watched as the Olympic crowds gathered in Zócalo, the city’s main square, where the marathon runners were preparing themselves at the starting line.
The marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards was run over a point-to-point course. The course snaked from the city’s main square, through the high plateaus of the Mexican valley, finishing at the Olympic Stadium, reaching a dizzying altitude of 2,240 meters.
At 15:00 local time, the starting gun fired.
The effects of running at high altitude hit the runners almost immediately. With 23 percent less oxygen than at sea level, the air was paper-thin. Unused to training at such high altitudes in Tanzania, the shortness of breath made Akhwari’s race all the more gruelling.
At the 19 kilometre point of the 42 km race, there was a jockeying for position between some runners and Akhwari suffered a fall. He hit hard against the pavement, badly grazing his leg and dislocating his knee.
Despite the advice of the medical team, he refused to go to the hospital and continued running, hobbling onward on a dislocated knee for 23 km.
At 2:20:26 into the race, Mamo Walde of Ethiopia crossed the finish line in first place. Through a combination of limping, hobbling, and jogging, and with laboured breathing, Akhwari still pushed on.
An hour after Mamo Walde crossed the finish line, the 83,700 Olympic spectators had dwindled down to only a few thousand and the sun had sunk low over the Mexican skyline. The final race of the day had been won, but Akhwari, bloodied, injured and clearly in immense pain, still pushed on.
The high altitude conditions had affected more runners than Akhwari that day. 18 of the 74 competitors did not finish the marathon. Akhwari was determined to not be one of them.
A television crew was sent out from the medal ceremony when word was received that there was one final marathon runner about to finish.
The small remaining crowd cheered in wonder and disbelief as Akhwari finally hobbled onto the Olympic track. Bleeding and gritting his teeth in pain, he crossing the finishing line at 3:25:17, in last place.
When interviewed later and asked why he continued running, he said, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
Akhwari’s story is one of grit, determination, and perseverance. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, he became an inspiration to millions, winning even when it seemed certain that he would lose.
His story reminds us of the importance of setting a goal and following it through, no matter how tough it gets; of not giving up, and of the strength that can be found even in the darkest moments.
Whether you’re running a marathon or running a business, starting is easy. It’s finishing that is the toughest part.
Remembering why you started.
One thing and one thing alone helped Akhwari cross the finish line.
He had a strong sense of purpose.
Akhwari had an unwavering focus to finish the marathon because that was what he was there to do. How fast he ran and how long it took him didn’t matter. And it didn’t matter how many times he had to stop along the way. It didn’t even matter that he finished in last place.
What mattered was that he finished what he set out to do.
Unwavering dedication towards an important cause is the fuel that keeps us moving forward in difficult times. It gives us the strength to keep pushing through, even when things become tough or uncomfortable. A strong sense of purpose can help us overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Great businesses are built on passion and purpose.
As humans, we crave meaning and connection. We want to feel important and valued. We need to know that our work is making a difference and that we are shaping a better future.
Like Akhwari, having a strong sense of purpose is what will help us reach the finishing line.
Purpose gives us clarity in a world of uncertainty. Purpose keeps us moving forward. Without a driving purpose, we can’t ever expect to finish the race. Without purpose, there is no reason for us to start running in the first place. We are lost, with no direction and nothing to guide us forward. We might as well be running in circles.
Akhwari didn’t blindly put one foot in front of the other in the hopes that he might find the finishing line. His sense of purpose led him every step of the way, and yours can too.
With a strong sense of purpose, nearly anything is possible.
As Akhwari hobbled onward on a dislocated knee at 7,350 feet, it was his grit, determination, and resolve that kept him moving forward. In spite of his injuries, it was the commitment and passion he felt towards his cause that gave him the strength to cross the finishing line.
Great businesses are built on passion. Passion for growth. Passion for change. Passion for helping people. Passion for making a difference. Passion for how the world could be.
Akhwari reminds us that purpose is the guiding compass for the way ahead. That purpose can become an endless source of energy and inspiration we can continuously draw upon to drive forward and create change.
Remaining resilient in the face of adversity.
Akhwari is remembered as a hero because of his dedication to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. His ability to exceed expectations and his refusal to admit defeat is what makes his story so memorable. It is his resilience that makes him a hero and that earned him the title of ‘King without a crown’.
Running at high altitude and suffering an injury early on in the race, you can bet that finishing line felt a million miles away for Akhwari.
The only thing that kept him going was determination.
With enough determination, Akhwari’s limitations were no longer restrictions. They were obstacles that could be overcome with enough strength, resolve, and commitment.
Akhwari reminds us that grit and strength are the keys to overcoming adversity in business and in life. That building a culture of support and resilience will help us reach those seemingly insurmountable goals and keep us moving forward in spite of setbacks, challenges, and difficulties.
Setbacks are inevitable– it’s how we respond to them that defines us.
With a strong sense of purpose, nearly anything is possible. Like Akhwari, it can help us overcome the odds, no matter how tough it gets.
Whether we’re running a marathon or running a business, purpose and passion is what will help us cross the finishing line.