Ethiopian track and field athlete, Abebe Bikila (1932-1973), was the first black African to win an Olympic medal, and the first man ever to win two Olympic marathons. Known for his grace and stamina, he was considered the most perfect example of a naturally talented distance runner.
Abebe Bikila, the son of a shepherd, did not begin running until he was 24 years old. Bikila was born in the mountains of Ethiopia. When he was old enough, Bikila became a private in the army and bodyguard of Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia. As part of his training, he was sent to a camp that the government had set up after World War II. At the camp, Swedish coach, Onni Niskanen recognized that Bikila had exceptional talent in running. In the 6,000-foot high mountains, he led Bikila and the others through grueling workouts. Runs of up to twenty miles and repeated sprints of 1,500 meters were common. Often, Bikila and the other recruits ran barefoot over the tough, rocky soil.
Bikila won his first marathon in Ethiopia's capital city of Addis Ababa in July 1960. Because Ethiopia was an isolated country and kept its borders closed to the rest of the world, people outside did not take much notice of Bikila. In addition, his winning time was 2 hours, 21 minutes, and 23 seconds, not particularly impressive compared to other runners. In August, Bikila ran a second marathon in Addis Ababa. His improved winning time was dramatic, as was the fact that both marathons were run at a high altitude and he had won them only a month apart, with little rest in between. Niskanen was convinced that Bikila could win the Olympic marathon, which would be held that same year, in Rome.
The marathon route was planned to show the world as much as possible of Rome's architecture, splendor, and history. For the first time ever, the race would not start or end in the Olympic Stadium, and for the first time, it would be run at night. The runners began at 5:30 p.m. in the Campidoglio, a square designed by Michelangelo, on Capitoline Hill, and wound through Rome. The later section of the race would be run in the dark, with the route lit by Roman soldiers holding torches. The last few miles would be run on the Appian Way, a road built by the ancient Romans, where Roman troops had marched thousands of years ago.
The group of runners assembled for the race was impressive, and Bikila was not expected to win. He would probably not have been noticed at all were it not for the fact that he chose to wear no running shoes. Used to running barefoot in Ethiopia, Bikila would run the entire 26.2 miles in bare feet. He had tried to run a few practice miles on the Roman streets with shoes, but found that they pinched his feet.
As the race began, four runners moved to the front of the pack: Keily of Great Britain, Vandendriessche of Belgium, Rhadi of Morocco, and Bikila. At six miles, two more runners caught up, but Sergie Popov of the Soviet Union (who held the world record and was expected to win) was still behind. By 16 miles, Bikila and Rhadi were in front. Previously, Bikila had decided that he would not take the lead until after the 12-mile mark, and now he was there. At 18 miles, he was still battling Rhadi for the lead. Unlike everyone else, Bikila and his coach had assumed that he would be in the lead at the end of the race. In the last few miles, Bikila looked for a place where he could decisively overtake Rhadi.2
A little more than a mile from the finish, Bikila saw a statue known as the Obelisk of Axum, which had originally come from Ethiopia, and which had been stolen by invading Italian troops during World War II. For Bikila, it was symbolic. As he and Rhadi passed the obelisk, he surged forward so strongly that Rhadi could no longer keep up. Dodging a motor scooter whose driver had mistakenly driven onto the course, he beat Rhadi by 25 seconds, with a finishing time of 2:15:16.2. With this time, he won the gold medal, beat Popov's previous world record by eight tenths of a second, and beat the Olympic record for the marathon by almost 8 seconds. Newspapers the next day commented that it had taken an entire Italian army to conquer Ethiopia, but only one Ethiopian soldier to conquer Rome.
Bikila's gold medal was the first Olympic medal won by a black African. This achievement, with Rhadi's silver medal, marked the beginning of a new era in international competition, in which African athletes would come to dominate distance running. Bikila achieved instant fame around the world. He was known as the Ethiopian who had conquered Rome.
In 1961, Bikila won marathon races in Greece, Japan, and Czechoslovakia. Still holding the world record, he returned to Ethiopia in October and did not take part in international competition for two more years.
In 1963, he ran in the Boston Marathon, and lost for the first time in his career, finishing fifth. After this race he went back to his army job in Ethiopia, disappearing from international view once again. Rumors circulated that he was running and competing in Ethiopia. Others claimed that he had been posted to the Somali border with Ethiopia because of tensions between the two countries. In 1964, he won a marathon in Addis Ababa, with a time of 2:23:14. Observers speculated that the relatively slow time was a result of the high altitude of the race.
Won a Second Gold Medal
On August 3, 1964, the Ethiopian Olympic trials took place in Addis Ababa. Bikila ran to a strong win with an incredible time of 2:16:18—amazing for that altitude. He won the race by only four-tenths of a second over Mamo Wolde. The third place finisher, Demissie Wolde, came in at 2:19:30. Other runners around the world suddenly became aware that there was not one, but three world-class marathon runners from Ethiopia.
Six weeks before the Tokyo Olympics, in 1964, Bikila underwent surgery for appendicitis. Although he planned to go to Tokyo with the team, he was not expected to compete. Between the operation and the day of the marathon, he had not run at all. Nevertheless, he took his place at the start, this time wearing shoes. Bikila and coach Niskanen had decided that he would use the same strategy he used in the 1960 marathon: stay with the lead runners until the 12-mile mark, and then move to the front.
Although Bikila was very popular with fans, he was not expected to win because of his surgery. At the halfway point, however, he was in the lead by five seconds. As Charlie Lovett wrote in Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History of the Games' Most Storied Race, "For Bikila, no more strategy was necessary. He slowly increased his lead, running with total concentration and precision—the ultimate image of the perfect marathoner. There was no indication that either his surgery or the extreme humidity was having the slightest effect on his race. His body seemed to float down the streets. Niskanen had taught him how to run using the least amount of energy and Bikila's smooth strides and motionless head made the race appear effortless." By the time he had run 22 miles, he was two and a half miles ahead of the nearest competitor. He entered the stadium alone, while 70,000 spectators cheered. He had set a new record of 2:12:11. Even at the end of the race, he seemed fresh and rested. Bikila performed a set of stretching exercises to prevent his muscles and joints from becoming stiff after the race. The crowd marveled at his ease and flexibility. He later said that he could have kept running for six more miles. Richard Benyo wrote in The Masters of the Marathon, "His running is seemingly effortless; he is frail but incredibly strong. He is like a personification of everything the marathon runner should be. He is the most natural world-class runner anyone has ever seen." With this victory, Bikila became the first man ever to win an Olympic marathon twice.
Mexico City, 1968
In 1965 and 1966, Bikila ran three marathons and won them all. An injury in July had forced him to drop out of a race and he was still nursing a stress fracture in his foot when he arrived in Mexico City to compete in the 1968 Olympics. The course was a high-altitude one—1,000 feet higher than Bikila's home course. However, he thought the altitude would give him an advantage over other runners.
Bikila started out in the lead pack as usual, but had to drop out in the tenth mile. Despite his incredible ability, even Bikila could not run with a broken bone in his foot. Later, his countryman Mamo Wolde said that if Bikila had not been injured, he would have won. Bikila would never compete again.
A Tragic Accident
Emperor Haile Selassie gave him a promotion to captain. In 1969, he was driving a Volkswagen in Addis Ababa when his car collided with another vehicle. Although Haile Selassie sent him to England for medical treatment, the doctors there could do nothing for him. He was paralyzed from the waist down. When he was brought back to Ethiopia on a stretcher, huge crowds gathered to welcome him home and cheer for him. Bikila turned to paraplegic sports, focusing on archery. He never walked again.
In 1972, Bikila was invited to the Munich Olympic Games as a special guest. Sitting in his wheelchair, he watched American Frank Shorter win the marathon. Shorter received his medal, then went to Bikila to shake his hand.
According to Raymond Krise and Bill Squires in Fast Tracks: The History of Distance Running, Bikila talked about his automobile accident in a 1983 interview. He 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."
In 1973, Bikila died from a brain hemorrhage. He was 41 years old and left a wife and four children. His career included fifteen marathon races, with twelve victories. After his death, Haile Selassie proclaimed a national day of mourning; 65,000 people attended the funeral.
Further Reading on Abebe Bikila
Benyo, Richard, The Masters of the Marathon, Atheneum, 1983.
Krise, Raymond, and Bill Squires, Fast Tracks: The History of Distance Running, Stephen Greene Press, 1983.
Lovett, Charlie, Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History of the Games' Most Storied Race, Praeger, 1997.