Abebe Bikila couldn’t find a comfortable pair of shoes for the 1960 Rome Olympics. So he ran barefoot. He won gold. Set a world record. And created history in the sport of long distance running, making East Africans a force to reckon with ever since.
The sixth in our series on international runners, Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila was the first sub-Saharan African Olympic gold medallist, and the first back-to-back Olympic champion. He won his first gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome while running barefoot, and won his second gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which made him the first athlete to successfully defend an Olympic marathon title.
Abebe was a member of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard – an elite infantry division that safeguarded the Emperor of Ethiopia. He was a soldier before he became an athlete, rising to the rank of a captain (shambel in Amharic); therefore his formal designation was Shambel Abebe Bikila. He was instrumental in establishing East Africa as a force in long distance running. Abebe participated in a total of sixteen marathons in his athletics career, winning twelve. According to Olympian and sports journalist Kenny Moore, Abebe was responsible for the great African distance running avalanche. He brought to the forefront the relationship between endurance and high-altitude training in all kinds of sports. The Abebe Bikila Award is presented to individuals for their contributions to long-distance running. Mamo Wolde, Juma Ikangaa, Tegla Loroupe, Paul Tergat, and Haile Gebrselassie are all recipients of the Abebe Bikila Award.
Abebe Bikila was born on August 7, 1932 in the small community of Jato. His birthday coincided with the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Marathon. As a young boy, Abebe played gena, a traditional hockey game. In 1952, he joined the 5th Infantry Regiment of the Imperial Guard in Addis Ababa. During the mid-1950s, Abebe ran 20 km (12 miles) from the hills of Sululta to Addis Ababa and back every day. Onni Niskanen, a Swedish coach employed by the Ethiopian government to train the Imperial Guard, soon noticed the twenty-four year old, and began training him for the marathon. In the 6,000-foot high mountains, he led Bikila and others through grueling workouts. Runs were up to twenty miles, including repeated sprints of 1,500 meters and barefoot runs over the rocky soil. In 1956, Abebe finished second to Wami Biratu in the Ethiopian Armed Forces championship.
In July 1960, Abebe won his first marathon in Addis Ababa. A month later he won again in Addis Ababa with a time of 2:21:23, which was faster than the existing Olympic record held by Emil Zátopek. Coach Niskanen entered both Wami Biratu and Abebe Bikila in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics, which would be run on 10th September. In Rome, Abebe purchased new running shoes, but they did not fit well and gave him blisters, leading to the decision to run barefoot instead. The race started late-afternoon and finished at night. Abebe’s winning time was 2:15:16, twenty-five seconds faster than runner-up Ben Abdesselam at 2:15:41 and breaking Russian marathoner Sergei Popov’s 1958 world record by eight tenths of a second. On crossing the finish line, Abebe began to run in place, saying that he could have run another 10–15 km (6–9 miles). He returned to his homeland a hero. The emperor awarded him the Star of Ethiopia and promoted him to the rank of asiraleqa (corporal). Bikila’s gold was the first Olympic medal by a black man, and marked the beginning of a new era in international competition.
In the 1961 Athens Classical Marathon, Abebe again won while running barefoot. This was the second and last event in which he competed barefooted. The same year he won the marathons in Osaka (Japan) and Košice (Slovakia). While in Japan, he was approached by a Japanese shoe company, Onitsuka Tiger, with the possibility of wearing its shoes; Coach Niskanen declined the offer. Between his Olympic wins in 1960 and 1964, Abebe also ran the 1963 Boston Marathon —and finished fifth in 2:24:43. This was the only time in his competitive career that he completed an international marathon without winning. The race was won by Belgium’s Aurele Vandendriessche in a course record of 2:18:58.
Forty days before the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Abebe felt pain while training. He was diagnosed with acute appendicitis, had an appendectomy on September 16, left the hospital within a week, and was all set to run the marathon on 21st October, this time wearing Puma shoes. Abebe began the race at the back of the pack until about the 10 km (6 miles) mark, when he slowly increased his pace. He entered the Olympic stadium alone, to the cheers of 75,000 spectators, finishing with a time of 2:12:11.2, four minutes and eight seconds ahead of silver medalist Basil Heatley of Great Britain. Abebe did not appear exhausted after the finish, and he again performed a routine of calisthenics, which included touching his toes twice then lying down on his back, cycling his legs in the air.
In the book “Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History of the Games”, Charlie Lovett writes, “For Bikila, no strategy was necessary. He slowly increased his lead, running with total concentration and precision. His body seemed to float down the streets. He ran using the least amount of energy and his smooth strides and motionless head made the race appear effortless.”
He was the first runner to successfully defend an Olympic marathon title. As of the 2016 Olympic marathon, Abebe and Waldemar Cierpinski are the only athletes to have won two gold medals in the event, and they both did it back-to-back. For the second time, Abebe received Ethiopia’s only gold medal and again returned home to a hero’s welcome. The Emperor promoted him to the commissioned-officer rank of metoaleqa (lieutenant). He received the Order of Menelik II, a Volkswagen Beetle and a house.
In May 1965, Abebe returned to Japan and won his second Mainichi Marathon. In 1966 he ran marathons at Zarautz (Spain) and Inchon Seoul (South Korea), winning both. The 1966 Incheon–Seoul Marathon was the last marathon he ever completed. He did not finish the Zarautz International Marathon in July 1967 due to a hamstring injury, from which he never recovered.
In July 1968, he joined the rest of the Ethiopian Olympic team training for the Mexico Olympics. A week before the race, Abebe developed pain in his left leg. Doctors discovered a fracture in his fibula, and he was advised to stay off his feet until the day of the race. Abebe had to drop out of the race after approximately 16 km (10 miles) and Mamo Wolde won that year in 2:20:26.4. This was Bikila’s last marathon appearance. He was rewarded with a promotion to the rank of shambel (captain) upon his return to Ethiopia.
On the night of March 22, 1969, Abebe lost control of his Volkswagen Beetle while trying to avoid an oncoming car. It overturned, trapping him inside, and he was only freed the following morning where the Imperial Guard hospital declared him quadriplegic – paralyzed from the neck down. On March 29, Abebe was transferred to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England, where he spent eight months receiving treatment. Although he could not move his head at first, his condition eventually improved to paraplegia, regaining the use of his arms, though he was paralyzed from the waist down and never walked again.
In 1970, Abebe began training for wheelchair-athlete archery competitions. In July that year, he competed in archery and table tennis at the Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games in London. The Stoke Mandeville Games were an early predecessor of the Paralympic Games. In April 1971, Abebe participated in games for the disabled in Norway. He competed in archery and table tennis and defeated a field of sixteen in cross-country sled dog racing with a time of 1:16:17.
Abebe was invited to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich as a special guest, and received a standing ovation during the opening ceremony. Speaking about his accident in a 1973 interview, Bikila said, “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 life and live happily.”
Abebe Bikila died at age 41 on 25th October 1973, of a cerebral hemorrhage related to his accident four years earlier. He received a state funeral, was buried with full military honors, and Emperor Haile Selassie declared a national day of mourning. Many schools, venues, and events, including Abebe Bikila Stadium in Addis Ababa, are named after him. The American Community School of Addis Ababa dedicated its gymnasium (which included facilities for the disabled) to Abebe. Bikila was not only one of the greatest marathoners of all time, but also won at paraplegic games post his accident – truly a source of inspiration the world over.
On March 21, 2010, the Rome Marathon observed the 50th anniversary of his Olympic victory. Winner and fellow Ethiopian runner Siraj Gena, ran the last 300 meters (984 ft) of the race barefoot and received a €5,000 bonus. A plaque commemorating the anniversary is mounted on a wall on the Via di San Gregorio, and a footbridge in Ladispoli was named in Abebe’s honour. In 2010, the Italian company Vibram introduced the “Bikila” model of its FiveFingers line of minimalist shoes.
A clip of Bikila running the 1960 and 1964 Olympic marathons: