The year was 1960, JFK had just taken office as the American President, for the first time a five piece band from Liverpool used the name The Beatles at a concert in Hamburg, The first episode of the long running soap Coronation Street was aired and the first successful kidney transplant took place.
Another notable happening that year was the 17th modern Olympics in Rome. 69 men would toe the start line of the marathon among them was the eventual winner Abebe Bikila.
Bikila was born on August 7th 1932 in Jato, Ethiopia.
Abebe Bikila didn’t start running until he was 24 but he was soon talent spotted by Omni Niskanen who had been hired by the Ethiopian government to train potential athletes. He went on to enter the National Armed Forces Championship Marathon competition which qualified him for a place on the national team for the Olympic Games in 1960.
It was a spot of luck that saw Bikila take to the start line of the marathon. He was a last minute replacement for an injured team-mate. As he awaited the start of the marathon, stood in bare feet with red shorts and a green vest, a commentator was noted to have dismissively said “Who is this Ethiopian?”
Bikila had arrived in Rome with one pair of running shoes. Because he had ruined them during his training he had to get a new pair. Unfortunately, the new pair caused him blisters so he made the decision to run barefoot. Because of this decision almost everyone expected him to suffer during the Marathon in Rome. But suffer he did not as he quickly kept pace with the leading pack from the off. As the Marathon exited the city a commentator was noted to have said “With the English Kiley, there’s the Irishman Messipy (Actually the Irishman was called Bertie Messitt not Messipy), the Belgian Van der Blicher, the Moroccans Rhadi and Saudy, and there’s that unknown Ethiopian we saw earlier,” announced the commentator. “He’s called Abebe Bikila. He’s barefoot.”
Over the next 8km Bikila started to up the pace and leave the pack behind.
On re-entry into the city, and with the finish only 500 metres ahead, Bikila stepped it up a gear and left behind the Moroccan Rhadi Ben Abdesselam to take the win and the gold medal. With this win Bikila also took the title of being the first Black African to win gold.
Abebe’s time was 2:15.16 which was 7 minutes 47 seconds quicker than the previous Olympic record held by Emil Zapotek.
Bikila would arrive in Tokyo for the Olympics in 1964 on the back of a turbulent period. Six weeks before the games he was taken ill with appendicitis and underwent surgery. It was expected that he wouldn’t take part let alone retain his title but that is exactly what he went on to do. This time Bikila would opt for trainers as oppose to bare feet. Again he would post a new Olympic record of 2:12.11. He would cross the line not even out of breath and went on to start a routine of stretching exercises. In a later interview he stated that he could have ran at least another 10km. With this race he set another first by becoming the first athlete to win the Olympic Marathon two times in a row.
A final attempt at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City would see Bikila leave the marathon at around 17km due to an injury in his right knee. Fellow countryman, friend and running partner Mamo Wolde took the gold medal. Wolde said afterwards that if Abebe had not been injured then he most surely would have won.
Sadly in 1968 Bikila’s life would take a turn for the worst. While driving his VW Beetle around Sheno he encountered a group of protesting students. He swerved to avoid them and lost control of the car. The car landed in the ditch and he was trapped. While he was eventually freed from the car the accident left him a quadriplegic. Bikila would seek out treatment which would take him to England and the Stoke Mandeville hospital where they were able to, over a period of eight months, upgrade his condition to that of paraplegic.
Bikila would take his disability with all the modesty that he took his Olympic marathon wins, quoting afterwards, “Men of success meet with tragedy. It was the will of God that I won the Olympics, and it was the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of live and live happily.”
He still held that competitive spirit though and competed in the Paraplegic Sport Competition in England as well as the International Paraplegic games in Norway where he won gold in a 25km cross-country sledge competition and further went on to compete in archery.
Abebe Bikila would grace the Olympics once more in 1972 at Munich, this time not as a competitor but as a special guest. He would watch his fellow countryman and friend Mamo Wolde take the bronze behind winner Frank Shorter and Karel Lismont who came second.
In 1973, at the age of just 41, Bikila died in Addis Ababa of a cerebral haemorrhage. Emperor Haile Selassie proclaimed a national day of mourning. To further enforce his standing as a national hero his funeral was attended by 65,000 people.
Bikila was survived by his wife, Yewubdar, and four children.
In a running career with a span of just 8 years Bikila left a lasting legacy.
In 1978 the New York Road Runners inaugurated an annual award in Bikila’s honour. The Abebe Bikila Award is given to individuals for their contribution to long distance running. The only UK winner of this award was Paula Radcliffe in 2006. The award has not been issued since 2012 with the last people to receive the honour being the Rudin family (long time New York Marathon sponsors).
The Abebe Bikila stadium was named in his honour. The stadium is in Addis Ababa and is currently used for football matches by the club Dedebit FC of the Ethiopian Premier league.
The Abebe Bikila International Peace half marathon first started in 2006 and ran until 2012. In 2013 the half marathon was upgraded to Marathon distance and continues to run to this day (alongside the half marathon) in Washington DC on Abebe Bikila Day.
As an honour to Bikila, The Yaya Abebe Bikila Primary Village School was established by the Medina community in 2005 with the assistance of the A Glimmer of Hope Foundation.
2009 would see the release of the film Atletu (The Athlete). The film was directed by Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew (who also took the starring role as Bikila). The plot summary on IMDB is as follows:
‘Running the streets of Rome in 1960, an unknown, barefooted Ethiopian man stunned the world by winning Olympic gold in the marathon. Overnight, Abebe Bikila became a sports legend. A hero in his own country and to the continent, Bikila was the first African to win a gold medal, and four years later in Tokyo would become the first person in history to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in the marathon. This soldier and quiet son of a shepherd would be acknowledged by many as the greatest long distance runner the world had ever known. One evening while returning to his home in Addis Ababa from training in the Ethiopian countryside, Bikila was involved in a tragic car accident which left him paralyzed from the waist down. Unable to walk and faced with the greatest challenge of his life, he struggled to maintain his will to live and in the process discovered a deeper meaning of competition, taking up archery for the Paralympics and competing as a handicapped dog sledder in Norway. Though his running career had come to a tragic end, the race of his life had a new beginning. For the first time, the true story of Bikila’s epic quest for life and sport comes to the big screen. Not since Raging Bull has the life of an athlete been rendered with such emotional power and cinematic grace.’
In 2010 Siraj Gena took part in the Rome City Marathon and, with the win clearly in the bag, ran the last 300 metres barefoot in honour of Abebe Bikila’s famous Olympic win at the Rome Olympics.
Also in 2010 the Vibram would introduce the next model of its FiveFingers line of minimalist (barefoot) running shoes known as the “Bikila”.
For a man with such a short running career Bikila is important in the history of running. Many African’s afterwards who would go on to fame in the running world would name Bikila as their inspiration. That he is still remembered and quoted as an inspiration to runners more than 50 years after his landmark race in Rome just shows what a pinnacle moment that was in the history of running.