Saturday, August 11, 2007

Abebe Bikila, Legendary Runner #4

Running barefoot on the cobblestones of Rome in the 1960 Olympics, Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila became the first black African to win an Olympic medal (Bikila pictured to the left winning, courtesy of His winning time of 2hr.15mins 16.2secs. was a new world record as he narrowly defeated Morocco's Rhadi Ben Abdesselem. When asked why he had run the race barefoot, Bikila replied "I wanted the world to know that my country Ethiopia has always won with determination and heroism."

Bikila was born in Jato, Ethiopia in 1932. The son of a shepherd, Bikila would eventually join the Imperial Guards to support his family. He became a private in the army as well as the bodyguard of Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia. During his training for the army, Bikila's talents were noticed by Swedish coach, Omni Niskanen, who was hired by the Ethiopian government to coach their athletes.

Bikila is reported to have started running at the age of 24 which would make sense considering that he was 28 when he competed in Rome. He was an unknown when he arrived at the '60 games, running both his previous marathons in the high altitude of Ethiopia. Bikila's 1st marathon was timed in 2hr. 21mins. 23secs. No report of his 2nd marathon time could be found but it has been noted to be faster than his first effort.

The plan for Rome, devised by Bikila and his coach, was to run with the leaders and then move with a kilometer to go. The race started in the evening to combat the sweltering heat and to showcase Rome. Bikila and Abdesselem were the last two runners left competing for the victory before Bikila made his planned surge. The picture on the right shows the two men battling in the last few miles as they headed toward the Olympic stadium.

With his victory, Bikila became an instant national hero. His gold medal, along with Abdesselem's silver medal, marked the arrival of the African runners who have come to dominate the world running scene. Bikila ran several marathons in 1961 winning races in Greece, Japan and Czechoslovakia. He didn't race internationally again until he finished 5th in the Boston Marathon in 1963, which was his first defeat. In 1964, Bikila won the Ethiopian Olympic trials marathon and was set to defend his gold medal.

40 days before the '64 games' marathon, Bikila had a major setback with surgery for appendicitis. Miraculously, Bikila toed the line in Tokyo, this time with shoes. He found himself all alone in the lead at the halfway point in the race and went on to set another world record, 2hrs. 12mins. 11.2secs. The crowd of 70,000 fans were treated with Bikila's array of stretching exercises following his victory. The two consecutive marathon titles marked the first time in history that an athlete had accomplished that feat in the Olympics. Waldemar Cierpinski tied Bikila's record of consecutive marathon victories with his wins in '76 and '80.

Bikila continued to compete following the '64 games winning 3 marathons in '65 and '66. Following several injuries, Bikila arrived at the '68 Olympics with the remnants of a stress fracture in his foot. The pain was too much for him as he withdrew from the race at the 17km. mark. Winner and fellow country man, Mamo Wolde, insisted that Bikila would have won yet again had he not been injured.

Bikila's life took a turn for the worse when he was paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1969. He would never walk again. Not ready to give up his competitive days, Bikila took part in paraplegic games, most notably archery. He sadly died in 1973 at the age 41 as a result of a brain hemorrhage. 65,000 people attended his funeral.

Bikila is still the hero of many of the Ethiopian stars of today as well as '96 Olympic Marathon champion, Fatima Roba. The New York Road Runners hand out the Abebe Bikila award annually to "an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to distance running, particularly through a spirit of deep commitment to the sport."

2nd photo courtesy of
3rd photo courtesy of

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