Inspirational people: PE and Sport magazine looks at the legendary Abebe Bikila, the first of the great Ethiopian distance runners, who won back-to-back gold medals in the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games
In October 1973, Abebe Bikila died in Addis Ababa at the age of 41 from a cerebral haemorrhage – a complication related to a car accident four years earlier that had left him paralysed from the waist down. His funeral was attended by 65,000 people and Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s Emperor, proclaimed a national day of mourning for the country’s legendary hero – the winner of back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the marathon. Born in August 1932, Bikila spent most of his childhood as a shepherd and a student. In 1952, he was hired by the Imperial Body Guard, where he spent a number of years before he distinguished himself as a fine athlete. His defining moment came when he was watching a parade of Ethiopian athletes who had just returned from the Melbourne Olympics. Looking at these athletes who were wearing a sport outfit with the name “Ethiopia” written on the back, he asked who they were. When told that they were athletes who represented Ethiopia in the Olympics, he was determined to be one of them. In 1956, at the age of 24, Bikila participated in the national armed forces championships. The hero of the time was Wami Biratu, who held the national records in the 5,000 and 10,000m races. During the marathon race, the crowd at the stadium was waiting to see Wami Biratu emerge as the winner. In the first few kilometres, Wami was leading but after a while radio broadcasters informed the crowd that a young unknown athlete by the name of Abebe Bikila was leading. Constantly extending his lead, the crowd waited anxiously to see this new sensation. He had won his first major race and later went on to break the 5,000 and 10,000m records held by Wami. With these impressive results, he qualified for the Rome Olympics, which were to make him a household name around the world. For Bikila, his Olympic marathon successes were destiny. Born on 7 August 1932, the day of the Los Angeles Olympic marathon, he was actually only added to the Ethiopian Olympic team in 1960 as the plane to Rome was preparing for take off – a replacement for Wami Biratu who had broken his ankle in a football match. It was in Rome where Bikila would make history and become an instant sporting hero to the Ethiopian people. The legend of Bikila and the Rome marathon began rather ominously. Adidas, the shoe sponsor at the 1960 Games, had only a few pairs of shoes left when he went to choose a pair for the race. He ended up with a pair that didn’t fit comfortably and two hours before the race decided he would be better off running barefoot. In the late afternoon the runners started out from the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum, with Bikila focused on one piece of advice from his Swedish coach Onni Niskanen – his main rival would be Morocco’s Rhadi Ben Abdesselam, wearing number 26. Bikila ran the entire marathon looking forward for number 26, passing runner after runner until, by about 20km, he and the runner wearing number 185 had created a gap from the rest of the pack. He didn’t know who he was running with but kept on looking ahead to find how far he was behind Rhadi. Bikila needn’t have worried. With 500m left, he sprinted to the finish line in a record time of 2 hours, 15 minutes and 16.2 seconds – 26 seconds ahead of his rival. The barefoot runner had become the first African to win Olympic gold. And when asked why he had run barefoot, he said: “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.” He returned to Ethiopia as a hero, where Haile Selassie promoted him to the rank of corporal and awarded him the Star of Ethiopia. Then, shortly after the Olympics, General Mengistu Neway plotted a coup and Bikila, who didn’t understand politics, was forced to take part. Bikila refused to kill dignitaries and when the coup attempt failed all involved were sentenced to death by hanging. Bikila was pardoned by the Emperor after lobbying by numerous people. Four years later he repaid his Emperor’s act of mercy by winning his second Olympic marathon in the Tokyo 1964 Games. Once again, adversity was to elevate his legendary status. Just over a month before the Tokyo Olympics, Bikila collapsed during a training run. Diagnosed with acute appendicitis he was immediately operated on – doctors told him his hopes of defending his Olympic gold were over. Shortly into his recovery, however, he started jogging secretly in the hospital courtyard at night. Bikila travelled to Tokyo but was not expected to compete. The day he arrived, he limped his way down the steps from the plane. However, the reception he received from the Japanese people helped him recover rather quickly and unexpectedly. Along with his colleagues, Mamo Wolde and Demssie Wolde, Bikila resumed his regular training after a few days of his arrival. The race itself, particularly, the way he won it barely six weeks after his surgery and the gymnastic display he showed right after finishing the race victoriously is now a classic image engraved in the minds of hundreds of millions of people on the planet. This was also the first time ever that the marathon race was won consecutively by an athlete. The new record of 2 hours, 12 minutes and 11 seconds that Bikila set was the icing on a remarkable cake. Four years later at the Mexico City Olympics, however, success deserted Bikila when he was forced to retire from the marathon after 15km due to poor health. His compatriot Mamo Wolde finished victorious. A few months later, Bikila was involved in the car accident that left him paralysed. Over the next nine months he was treated in both Ethiopia and abroad. Despite his paralysis, the competitive spirit he had shown for the whole of his life never diminished. In 1970, he participated in a 25km cross-country sledge race in Norway, where he again won the gold medal. Abebe had competed in more than 26 major marathon races in his illustrious athletic career and as well as his two Olympic gsold medals, the world championships he won in 1960 and 1962 also deserve special recognition.
In October 1973, Abebe Bikila was laid to rest in the grounds of St. Joseph’s Church, his illustrious life and sporting career enshrined in Ethiopian legend – a true Olympic hero and inspiration to his nation and athletes throughout the world.