With the Rio Olympics in Brazil just months away, many will be casting their memories back to some of the supreme performers at the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet.
One such iconic figure was Ethiopian Abebe Bikila who brought glamour on the African continent to marathon running, and elevated himself to cult status across the globe.
Bikila was born on August 7, 1932, in the small community of Jato, 25 kilometres outside the town of Mendida, Ethiopia. Prophetically, Bikila’s birth coincided with the day of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Marathon. The son of a shepherd, he grew up in the typical village setting and received some church education.
In his youth, he was noted as a good swimmer, Guna player –– a type of hockey played during Christmas, and a skilful horse rider. At the age of 17 Bikila moved to the capital city, Addis Ababa, where he began a military carrier in the imperial bodyguard regiment.
To keep the troops physically fit, the army unit had regular sport activities. This programme gave him a chance to develop his natural talent for sport. Later on as a symbol of unity, the armed forces established a yearly sport competition event, which was designed to reunite the three forces –– army, air force and navy –– in shared activities. In his first Annual National Army Athletic Competition, he finished the race in two hours 39 minutes and 50 seconds.
That opened a new chapter in his life. He was noted by the Swedish coach Onni Niskanen who was then a director of athletics under the Ministry of Education and later an official of the Red Cross.
With the assistance of Niskanen, Abebe made an intensive preparation for the 1960 Rome Olympics. Abebe Wakijera was the only other athlete who qualified to go to Rome besides Abebe Bikila.
Just days before the competition, Abebe had a blister in his foot due to running with a new shoe. Some had claimed that he used to train barefoot. However, it was absolutely not true. He decided to run barefoot only as a result of inconvenience.
Bikila was warned by Niskanen about his main rivals, one of whom was Rhadi Ben Abdesselam from Morocco, who was supposed to wear No. 26. For unknown reasons, Rhadi did not acquire his black marathon bib before the race, and instead was wearing his regularly assigned track and field bib No. 185.
The late afternoon race had its starting point at the foot of the great staircase of the Capitoline Hill. The finish was at the Arch Of Constantine, just outside The Colosseum. During the race Bikila passed numerous runners as he searched for Rhadi’s No. 26. By about 20 kilometres, Bikila and Rhadi (actually wearing No. 185) had created a gap from the rest of the pack. Bikila kept looking forward to find the runner with No. 26, unaware that Rhadi was running right beside him. They stayed together until the last 500 metres, when Bikila sprinted to the finish line. Bikila won in a record time of 2:15:16.2, becoming the first sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold medal.
He finished 25 seconds ahead of Rhadi.
After the race, when Bikila was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied: “I wanted the whole world to know that my country Ethiopia has always won with determination and heroism.”
On December 13, 1960, while Emperor Haile Selassie was on a state visit to Brazil, his Imperial Guard forces, led by General Mengistu Neway, staged an unsuccessful coup, briefly proclaiming Selassie’s eldest son Asfa Wossen as Emperor. Fighting took place in the heart of Addis Ababa, shells detonated inside the Jubilee Palace, and many of those closest to the Emperor were killed.
Bikila took no part in the uprising, but was briefly held in detention after the coup. Most of the surviving guards were disbanded and dispersed. One newspaper remarked boldly: “Abebe owes his life to his gold medal.”
In 1961, Bikila ran marathons in Greece, Japan, and Košice in Czechoslovakia, all of which he won. Bikila entered the 1963 Boston Marathon and finished in just fifth place –– the only time in his career that he finished a marathon and did not win. He returned to Ethiopia and he didn’t compete in another marathon until the one in Addis Ababa in 1964. He won this race, taking 2:23:14 to complete the course.
Forty days prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, during a training run near Addis Ababa, Abebe Bikila started to feel pain. Unaware of the cause of the pain, he attempted to overcome this pain but collapsed. He was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. He was operated on and shortly thereafter and even during his recovery period he started jogging in the hospital courtyard at night.
Bikila travelled to Tokyo but was not expected to compete. He did enter the marathon. He used the same strategy as in 1960: to stay with the leaders until the 20 kilometre point, then slowly increase his pace. After 15 kilometres he only had company from Ron Clarke of Australia and Jim Hogan of Ireland. Shortly before 20 kilometres only Hogan was in contention and by 30 kilometres, Bikila was 40 seconds in front of Hogan and two minutes in front of Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan in third place.
He entered the Olympic stadium alone to the cheers of 70,000 spectators. He finished the marathon in a new Olympic record time of 2:12:11.2; 4 minutes, eight seconds in front of the silver medalist Basil Heatley of Britain. Kokichi Tsuburaya was third. Bikila was the first athlete in history to win the Olympic marathon twice.
After finishing, he astonished the crowd: not appearing exhausted, he started a routine of stretching exercises. He later stated that he could have run another ten kilometres. Bikila returned to Ethiopia to a hero’s welcome once again. He was again promoted by the Emperor, and he received his own truck, a white Volkswagen Beetle.
In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, once again Bikila and Mamo Wolde were entered in the marathon (symbolically, Bikila was issued bib No. 1 for this race). This time, however, Bikila had to leave the race after approximately 17 kilometres, owing to an injury in his right knee. According to Bud Greenspan’s Favourite Stories, an Olympics documentary, Bikila broke a small bone in his foot a few days before the race, while running barefoot. He watched his friend and long-time running partner Mamo Wolde win the gold medal. Mamo Wolde later stated that if Bikila had not been injured, he would surely have won.
In 1969, during civil unrest in Addis, Bikila was driving his Volkswagen Beetle when he had to swerve to avoid a group of protesting students. He lost control of his car and it landed in a ditch, trapping him. He was freed out of the car but the accident left him quadriplegic. He was operated on at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England and his condition improved to paraplegic. Niskanen convinced him to compete in archery competitions for athletes in wheelchairs and Abebe joked that he would win the next Olympic marathon in a wheelchair.
Abebe was invited as a special guest to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where he witnessed his countryman Mamo Wolde fail to match Bikila’s twin marathon victories; Wolde finished third behind American Frank Shorter and Belgium’s Karel Lismont. After Shorter received his gold medal, he went to Bikila to shake his hand.
On October 25, 1973, Abebe Bikila died in Addis Ababa at the age of 41 from a cerebral haemorrhage, a complication related to the accident of four years earlier. He left behind his wife and four children.
His funeral in Addis Ababa was attended by 75,000 people. Emperor Haile Selassie I proclaimed a national day of mourning for the country’s national hero. Newspapers throughout Africa eulogized him as an inspiration to their own distance runners, some of whom won gold medals in future Olympics.
Bikila was interred at Saint Joseph’s Church Cemetery in Addis Ababa.
Five years after his death, the New York Road Runners inaugurated an annual award in his honour –– the Abebe Bikila Award, which is given to individuals for their contributions to long-distance running.
A stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honour. The American Community School of Addis Ababa dedicated its gymnasium to Abebe Bikila in the late 1960s.