Trailblazer Bikila opened the way for African marathon runners
Abebe Bikila, a wily 5’9″ runner weighing just 55 kilos (122 pounds), was the first black African to win Olympic gold and in doing so opened the way for others to take their place on the world stage.
Bikila’s now-iconic, barefoot victory in the 1960 games in Rome is part of Olympic folklore.
The runner died in 1973 — aged just 41 — as a result of injuries sustained in an earlier car accident, but his legend lives on.
Bikila was born in 1932 in the northern Ethiopian village of Jato, known for its teff wheat used to make the popular Ethiopian dish, injera. As a shepherd’s son he grew up herding cattle and sheep, and did not begin running until he was 24.
He is said to have walked the 130 kilometres (81 miles) from his village to the capital Addis Ababa to look for work and was subsequently given a job in the Ethiopian imperial guard.
Bikila was inspired to start running by Finnish-born Swedish coach Onni Niskanen, who spotted the young man’s natural talent.
“When I started training him, he ran like a drilling soldier,” said Niskanen.
Bikila was sent to a high altitude government training camp 6,000 feet above sea level where he ran a mix of cross-country and road races of up to 32 kilometres (20 miles).
Bikila prepared for the Rome Olympics by outclassing Ethiopia’s best, Wami Biratu, to win the Addis Ababa marathon.
His winning time of 2:21.23 impressed Niskanen who picked him as one of two Ethiopians to run in the Rome Olympics.
Running barefoot and in the near-total darkness of the final kilometres of the cobblestoned Appian Way, Bikila set a world record of 2:15.16.
“I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism,” Bikila told reporters who asked why he had run without shoes.
That determined display was repeated four years later in Tokyo when Bikila, recovering from an appendix operation and this time wearing shoes, set another world record of 2:12:11. Bikila became the first man to win an Olympic marathon twice.
A stress fracture prevented him from an attempt at a third marathon title at the 1968 Mexico Olympics which was won by his compatriot Mamo Wolde. Wolde said Bikila would have won the race were it not for his injury.
Hailed a national hero, Bikila was promoted to captain by Emperor Haile Selassie and given a Volkswagen car as a gift.
But in 1969, while driving the car, Bikila was involved in a collision with another vehicle that left him paralysed from the waist down.
Bikila never walked again and switched to paraplegic sports, focusing on archery.
“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,” said Bikila.
He went on to participate in the International Paraplegic Games in Norway in September 1971. His victory in the dog sled race was seen as further proof of the strength of his competitive spirit and determination.
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