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IN sport as it is in most adventures in life, glory belongs to the vanguard. In sport, but not necessarily in most misadventures in life, we almost always have kind words for the losers.
To this fact Heracles might be a stranger, but he doth smile, for the race for gold and glory begins anew in the storied city men call London. For in legend, he is to be credited with this spectacle.
Still, the supreme offspring of the Lord of Olympus is but a creature of mythology, and cannot possibly endure comparison with the monumental struggles and sacrifices of the mortal human athlete.
Is it not so? Close to 3,000 years after Coroebus ran 210 yards to become the first Olympic champion, and 120 years after Pierre de Coubertin sought to revive the Games, we look to John Stephen Ahkwari and we bear witness to this truth.
Thousands did see him, then millions. Probably, billions more will know of him before the end creeps up on us like a thief in the night. On TV a good many years ago, he astonished me by conquering a "mountain" so great and fearsome, and I remember this cry leaping from my weeping heart, "What a courageous soul".
There he was, the last runner in the marathon in the 1968 Olympics. Mamo Wolde had claimed the gold an hour and a half earlier.
Ahkwari, now limping, now hobbling, but ever determined, entered the Olympic Stadium and was borne by the spirit in the final lap. Blood and burden barred his way, but to no avail. He finished the race.
He was asked: "Why did you keep going?" His answer, full of power and pedigree unmatchable, echoing still into the best and worst days of the future, was: "You don't understand. My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race, they sent me to finish it."
Thus did the vanquished become the victor. And all knew this.
Sportsmen are a special people. This is affirmed in the way we treat them. Winners or not, they push human endurance and skill to levels beyond the reach of most, save in dreams. So, champions or not, we lavish praise on them for whom the finish line is as much about gold as it is about an inextinguishable spirit.
Isn't this what we tell our children? That winning is half the game. How noble if this was so all the time.
But if only we were as charitable to those outside of sport, who are in our circle of influence, who always seem to come in somewhere at the end like Ahkwari.
For them, for most of us, life seems very much like a competition. We must ever strive to keep ahead, stay abreast and get across, all at the same time. Not everyone wants to, not everyone can, few will be 'winners', many are the 'losers'.
What are our words and thoughts for these people? For the friend who labours as hard as his skills permit but whose work is fragile at best, for the student who burns the midnight oil but whose dreams go up in smoke, for the man who saves to raise a family but loses all to wayward children?
Do we see them as 'losers', souls who must plod along in life with nothing to hope for but an endless march into nothingness?
That is our vision, even if the thoughts do not give birth to speech, if we say results and progress are one and the same, that one cannot exist without the other, like light and darkness.
Harsh. But this is how a great part of the world is ordered. To live is to strive to be No 1. To be rich, to be clever, to be admired. Anything else gained or lost is incidental. That is the gospel which ensures humanity's continued survival.
It is a sad reflection on us, it is a myth, like the son of Zeus. Life is much more than a competition. Those who know, like Ahkwari, will see in the sky more a beautiful canvas of nature and less an instrument of conveyance.
And those who see this will likely know, as an "old friend" did, that life is in fact about fighting the good fight, about finishing the race, about keeping the faith. The incidental glory, assuredly, will fade.