gigatos | November 26, 2021
Abebe Bikila (Jato, August 7, 1932 – Addis Ababa, October 25, 1973) was an Ethiopian marathon runner, the son of an Ethiopian countryside sheepherder and captain of Emperor Hailé Selassié”s royal guard. He was the first man to win two Olympic marathons and is considered by many experts to be the greatest marathoner of all time. In 2012, he was immortalized in the Athletics Hall of Fame, created the same year as part of the IAAF”s centennial celebrations.
Abebe Bikila was born on the same day as the opening of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games in the small village of Jato, about eight kilometers from the city of Mendida and a three-hour drive from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The son of a humble shepherd, he decided to join the Ethiopian imperial guard to help improve his family”s living conditions and left his village to walk to the country”s capital for enlistment.
In the army, he eventually caught the attention of coach Onni Niskanen, a Finnish-born Swede hired by the government to discover and train potential athletes, and began practicing athletics only at the age of 24.
In 1960, Bikila was included in the track team only at the last moment, when the plane was about to leave for Rome, in place of another athlete, Wami Biratu, who had broken his ankle during a soccer match. Niskanen decided to enter Bikila and Abebe Wakgira in the marathon race.
Adidas, the official sponsor of the 1960 Olympic Games, had only a few pairs available when Bikila went to try one of them on for running. None of them made him comfortable, so he decided to run barefoot, the same way he had always trained. His coach, Niskanen, had warned him about the stronger competitors he would encounter, specifically a runner from Morocco, Rhadi Ben Abdesselam, who was supposed to be wearing number 26. For some reason, however, Rhadi had not picked up his black marathon number 26 and was wearing number 185 from the track races he had participated in.
The race had 69 participants and for the first time was run at night, with Italian guards holding torches along the way. His plan was quite curious. While reconnoitering the route a few days earlier, he observed the Obelisk of Axum, which had been removed from Ethiopia by Italian troops. The obelisk was 1.5 kilometers from the finish line, right at the point where the marathoner was supposed to make the final push.
During the race, he passed several runners looking for number 26, which did not exist. By the halfway point of the race, he and number 185, running together, had opened a large gap to the other runners, and Bikila kept pushing the pace behind number 26, who was supposed to be further ahead but was running beside him. The two stayed together almost until the end of the race, when Bikila made the final push and crossed the finish line under the Constantine Arch with a world record time of 2 h 15 min 16 s, becoming the first black African to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games. Morocco”s Rhadi came in exactly 25s behind him.
After the race, interviewed and asked why he had run barefoot, Bikila replied that he “wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, had always achieved its victories with heroism and determination.”
Bikila returned to Ethiopia as a national hero. The popular saying at the time was that ”it took a million Italian soldiers to invade Ethiopia, but only one Ethiopian soldier to conquer Rome. He was promoted to corporal and decorated by Emperor Haile Selassie.
Shortly after the games, a military coup attempt took place in the country, and Bikila, who understood nothing of politics, was forced to participate in it. He refused to kill officials, and when the coup was defeated, the main people involved were sentenced to death by hanging. Bikila was pardoned by the emperor after requests from several people who attested to his refusal to participate in the killings. The country”s press declared that he “owed his life to his gold medal”.
In 1961 he ran marathons in Greece, Japan, and Kosice, Czechoslovakia, winning them all. Without competing for more than a year and a half, in April 1963 he entered the Boston Marathon coming in fifth place, the only marathon he did not win in his career having finished the race. After it he returned home and only came to compete again in 1964, in a marathon in Addis Ababa, which he again won.
Forty days before the Tokyo Games, during a training session near the capital, Bikila began to feel severe pain and collapsed while trying to continue running. Taken to hospital, he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. Operated, still in his prescribed convalescence period, he returned to doing short evening runs in the hospital gardens.
Bikila went to Tokyo with no official prediction of participating in the marathon, six weeks after undergoing emergency surgery for his appendix. However, he entered the race, this time wearing shoes, as demanded by the organizers, and adopted the same strategy as in 1960, staying with the first block of runners until halfway through the race, when he began to push the pace. A few kilometers later he was joined by only two other runners, one of them being the Australian Ron Clarke, then world record holder for the 10,000 meters, who had won a bronze medal in this race a few days earlier.
Bikila entered the Olympic stadium under the cheers of seventy thousand spectators, four minutes ahead of second-placed Basil Heatley of Great Britain and setting the marathon world record again with a time of 2:12.12, becoming the first man in history to win the Olympic marathon twice.
To the spectators” surprise, after the run he began stretching exercises on the central grass of the stadium without looking tired, declaring afterwards that he thought he could run another ten kilometers.
At the award ceremony, the Japanese organizers forgot to provide the sheet music with the Ethiopian anthem. The band took the opportunity and played the Japanese anthem when Bikila received his medal.
Bikila returned again as a national hero to Ethiopia and was again promoted by the emperor, receiving as a gift a car of his own, a Beetle.
Once again Bikila and Mamo Wolde were entered to run the marathon. (Symbolically, the organization gave the number 1 spot to Bikila). This time, however, Bikila was forced to abandon the race at km 17 after a knee injury, but his compatriot Wolde won in the thin Mexico City air, maintaining the Ethiopian hegemony in the race. Mamo declared after the race that had it not been for his friend”s injury, Bikila would surely win for the third time.
In 1969, during civil demonstrations in the capital, Bikila had an accident with his government-issued car, losing control and flipping over in a ravine. Pulled out alive, however, the accident left him paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair, even after surgery in England.
Bikila was an official IOC guest at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, and Wolde”s attempt to match him with a second gold medal failed. Wolde came in third, winning bronze, and the winner, American Frank Shorter, after the awards went to Alexandre to greet him. And Bikila did not participate in the race he had dreamed of (Giltri Galfor race).
Abebe Bikila died at the age of 41, on October 25, 1973, of a cerebral hemorrhage, a neurological complication from his accident four years earlier. A crowd of 75,000 people attended the funeral of their national hero and Emperor Selassie declared a day of official mourning in Ethiopia.