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Saturday, September 16, 2000

A journey completed

Marathoner back for ceremony he missed after collapsing in '68


  SYDNEY -- It took 32 years but John Akwhari got his walk yesterday during the opening ceremony of the 27th Olympiad.

 John Stephens Akwhari is the marathoner from the African nation of Tanzania who, in 1968, dehydrated, bleeding from three falls and suffering from oxygen deprivation, staggered into the Mexico City Olympic Stadium.

 IGNORED PLEAS TO QUIT

 Akwhari finished half an hour behind the second-last runner and ignored pleas to quit from medical workers, Olympic officials and even his coach. The medals already had been awarded and preparations for the closing ceremony had to be delayed as Akwhari shuffled the final kilometres on blistered and bleeding feet.

 The image of Akwhari, then 29 years old, staggering into the nearly empty stadium, has remained one of the most potent examples of courage in an athletic spectacle that has spiralled, not just in size and scope but in corruption and commercialism.

 The Olympics have spiralled but the values have shrunk since Akwhari crossed the finish line and fell into the waiting arms of Red Cross workers.

 "I believed I was a soldier," Akwhari said yesterday from the athletes village. "My country had sent me there to do honour. You do honour not by starting a race, but by finishing it."

 Akwhari was an accomplished marathoner as he approached Mexico City. He began running as a barefoot teen across the hills of what was then Tanganika. He finished second, still barefoot, at a major event in Greece in 1958 and placed sixth, wearing shoes, in 1962 at the Commonwealth Games in Perth.

 But while he had run at altitude, Akwhari was not prepared for the depleted level of oxygen he found in Mexico City. He was among scores of athletes devastated by the course.

 "In parts of the race, I was near the lead," he said. "I was going at normal speed but feeling uncomfortable. At 32 (kilometres), I started to get heavily cramped and dizzy. At 38 km, my coach pleaded with me to withdraw. He told me I was the only one left."

 Knowing that if he fell one more time, he could not get back up, Akwhari minced up the ramp and into the stadium.

 "Every step, the muscles were pulling at me," he said. "It was painful for me the whole time.

 "I didn't hear anything as I looped around the track and tried to find the finish line," Akwhari said. "Slowly, I started to to hear a noise, it was clapping. As I came to the finish line there were many people clapping and cheering."

 Now 62 and chairman of his Tanzanian village, Akwhari was brought to Australia as an honourary coach for his country's three marathoners. In Sydney, he found a chance to put a final imprint on the Games.

 PUT ON A STRETCHER

 "The Red Cross put me on a stretcher to take me to a clinic as soon as I crossed the finish line," he said. "I missed the closing ceremony."

 As he strode onto the track yesterday, Akwhari completed a journey from a teenaged barefoot runner to a lasting symbol whose legacy dwarfs anything he could have achieved with a gold medal.

 "Today," Akwhari said, "I march to make up for the ceremony I couldn't make in '68."