Remembering Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian hero


The image on television of an African runner crossing the finish line first in an international track meeting in the middle and long distance events is not uncommon.

The dominance is overwhelming as Ethiopian, Eritrean, Kenyan and Moroccan male athletes hold 17 of the 20 world records from 800- to the 100-km events. Japanese Toshihiko Seko (25,000 and 30,000) and Takahiro Sunada (100-km) are the other world champions.

At the last Olympics in Beijing two years ago, 28 of Africa’s 40 medals were won on the track with Kenya leading the way with 14, including five gold and five silver.

While South African sprinter Reginald Walker was the first athlete from the continent to clinch an Olympic gold medal in the 1908 London summer Games, it took another 52 years before a Black athlete stood on top of the podium for the first time.

That honour went to Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila who was born on the day of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics marathon race.

Tomorrow, September 10, marks the 50th anniversary of Bikila’s historic victory. Running barefoot, the son of a shepherd and private in Haile Selassie’s Imperial bodyguard breasted the tape in the 1960 Rome Olympics in a record 2:15.16.2 secs. which was eight minutes faster than Czech Emil Zapotek’s winning time in the1952 Helsinki Games.

When examined by a doctor after the gruelling 42.195-km (26 miles, 385 yards) marathon event, Bikila’s eyes were clear, his pulse rate was 88, he showed no signs of fatigue and his feet were surprisingly unscathed.

He also assured his Finnish-born trainer, Onni Niskanen, that he still had a lot left in his tank and he could have gone another 10-15 kilometres at the same speed.

Bikila’s victory was stunning since he was a last-minute replacement for Wami Biratu who broke his ankle in a soccer match. One of the country’s best long distance runners, Biratu trained with Bikila at one point and held the national 5,000 and 10,000-metre records.

Adidas, the 1960 Olympics footwear sponsor, had few shoes left by the time Bikila was inserted into the Ethiopian line-up. After failing to find a comfortably-fitting pair, he decided to run barefoot which was the way he trained.

Like many in the media covering the Games, French sportswriter Robert Pariente, who was invited by the Games organizing committee to follow the event in the helicopter from where some of the film’s sequences were shot, was unfamiliar with Bikila.

“I saw Rhadi (the Moroccan who finished second) go ahead and then I saw a Black man who was running barefoot,” he recalled. “We did not know who he was. Then we looked at the lists and did not know if his surname was Abebe or Bikila.”

Bikila returned home to a hero’s welcome and a royal reception at the palace where Selassie decorated him with the Star of Ethiopia and promoted him to the rank of corporal.

“We are definitely pleased to see today the first fruit of the sports organization that we started in our reign,” Selassie said. “Finding ourselves victors in such a sport as would demand physical fitness and endurance makes Ethiopia even more worthy of international recognition. With your achievement serving as a trailblazer, the door has now been opened for future generations to follow in your footsteps.”

Bikila won the 1964 Tokyo marathon in a record 2:12;11.2, becoming the first athlete to successfully defend the title.

Once again, he didn’t appear to be exhausted after the race, claiming he could have run another 10 kilometres. On his triumphant return home, Selassie bestowed the star athlete with the Order of Menelik II, promoted him to Lieutenant and made presentations of a car and house.

Bikila’s quest for a third successive gold medal in Mexico City was dashed when a leg injury forced him to quit after about 15 kilometres. Fellow Ethiopian Mamo Wolde won the event, making it three straight for the Horn of Africa country.

Despite the rare failure, Bikila was welcomed home with promotion to the rank of Captain.

Nearly six months after the 1968 Olympics, Bikila was involved in a serious single car accident in his homeland that left him a paraplegic. He died four years later at age 41 from brain haemorrhage, a complication related to his accident.

Bikila was accorded a military funeral and a stadium in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, was named after him.

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