At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico, the last marathon runner entered Olympic stadium more than an hour behind the winner and other competitors. Most of the spectators had gone home, the sun had already set, and there was no way he could win. But still, John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania ran.
Akhwari was in terrible condition. He needed stitches, was bandaged and bleeding, and was limping along with a dislocated knee cap. He had suffered a fall earlier in the day, and his ragged appearance proved as much. As he entered the stadium’s tunnel, car headlights lighting his path, those few left in the stands began to cheer wildly. Akhwari hobbled onto the track and triumphantly across the finish line. It was one of those great, courageous, enduring Olympic moments.
Why did Akhwari stay in the race? What made him endure to very end? He was asked those questions by reporters in the aftermath. Akhwari answered: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish.” Akhwari finished 57th of the 74 competitors who started the race: Dead last. But he finished, unlike 17 other runners with “DNF” marked beside their name: Did Not Finish. Again, there is a vast difference, a world of difference, between quitting and finishing.
A friend of mine was an incredible long distance athlete. He ran and cycled, the two of us doing a number of road races together. And he outpaced me every time. Just a few days ago he beat me to the finish line again. He died of bone cancer. He was only 42 years old.
My friend had a beautiful wife and family. He never met a stranger. He never harmed or intended evil toward another person, and he lived his life with nothing but an open hand and an open heart. And the suffering he endured over the last few months of his life was nothing short of inhumane.
It was a living hell on earth, a crucifixion. No one should ever have to face such hardship. And young men with wives they love and young children to rear should not fall to disease, but they do, and it’s hard to take. The only solace I have in my friend’s death is that his suffering is finally is over. No more surgeries, no more radiation or chemotherapy that at times was worse than the disease itself. No more sleepless, morphine-filled nights with the nightmares and hallucinations.
My friend didn’t quit. To quote the Apostle Paul, he “fought a good fight. He finished the course, and he kept the faith,” to the very end. And now, thankfully, there is no more suffering. I believe he now has a restful, glorious reprieve from his sufferings. It is done, but it isn’t over.
Disease and death are our enemies, but they are not enemies that will have the last word. When the suffering of this life ends, it is the beginning of something new. What we suffer now, and what my friend endured, is nothing compared to the wonder that will be revealed later. With eager hope we look forward to the day when as God’s children, we will be free from death and decay.
Written about the time the King James Translation of the Bible first rolled off the printing press, John Donne’s “Divine Sonnet X” is one of the most beloved and quoted poems in the English language. I thought of it when news of my friend’s completed race came to me. Donne’s words are hopeful food for the soul to all those who have run well and finished their race. He wrote, “Death be not proud, though some have called thee; Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so…Poor death, nor yet can thou kill me…One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.” Amen.