“I wanted the world to know that my country Ethiopia has always won with determination and heroism”
As the son of an Oromo shepherd, one could say Abebe Bikila experienced “humble” beginnings growing up in Jato, a village located in the Semien Shewa (~North Shewa) zone of the province Amhara, Ethiopia. In the 1950s Bikila went to Addis Ababa (the Capital) to visit his mother. Impressed by the city & its beautiful structures, he decided to stay. Abebe Bikila was said to be particularly entranced with the discipline & preciseness of the prestigious Kebur Zabagna -Ethiopian Imperial Guards- an elite infantry division that safeguarded the Emperor.
Fun Fact; Ethiopia was not Colonized! Bikila later joined the force & soon became a private in 1956.
A man of many talents, young Bikila was known to be a good swimmer, skillful horse rider & an excellent hockey player. Physically, Bikila was said to weight 60kg (130lbs), standing 5′ 10″ (1.77m) tall, he was a slender man. Abebe Bikila was added to the national team just before the plane was scheduled to leave for Rome to the 1960 Olympics. Starting his career at the ripe age of 24, following a broken ankle suffered by Wami Biratu; the initial 1960 marathon entrant.
Due to this last minute turn of events, upon arriving in Rome, Bikila discovered Adidas – the shoe sponsor- didn’t have enough shoes left for the provision of all the athletes. The shoes given to Bikila were uncomfortable & ill-fitting. So much to the surprise of his peers, Bikila decided to run barefoot. Only 2 hours Before his marathon race!
The summer games in Rome didn’t start or finish at the main Olympic stadium. The later part of the event was run in the dark with the route lit up by Roman soldiers holding torches. Abebe Bikila finished first & won his race at a world record time of 2: 15:16.2, beating a field of 75 men.
This made Bikila the 1st Ethiopian to win an Olympic gold medal & the first Black African to win one. Onni Niskanen; the swedish coach responsible for scouting him gave a press statement years later saying that Bikila took 98 steps in one minute!
In 1961 Bikila went on to run marathons in Greece, Japan & -then- Czechoslovakia; he won all of them. Only 40 days to the 1964 summer Olympics in Tokyo, Bikila collapsed while training for the marathon. When rushed to the hospital, Bikila was diagnosed with acute appendicitis & immediately went under surgery to have his appendix removed. Many expected Bikila to sit this race out but not Bikila. He spent the evenings jogging around the hospital courtyard & won the marathon!
Taking the gold for himself & Ethiopia!
Bikila also participated in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, however due to an injured knee, he was forced to forfeit the game. Abebe Bikila participated in a total of 15 marathons & won 12 of them!
In 1969, Bikila was involved in an unfortunate car accident that rendered him a quadriplegic. But this didn’t quell this hero’s flame. Abebe Bikila picked up Archery & in 1970 he began training for wheelchair-athlete archery competitions, to later compete in the International Paraplegic Games in Norway.
He passed away on October 25, 1973 from complications due to the accident that caused a parallel cerebral hemorrhage. His legacy & heart continues to inspire the people of Ethiopia.
As a tribute to Bikila, Siraj Gena ran the last 500m barefoot in the 2010 summer Olympic men’s marathon & he brought home the Gold just like his fellow Ethiopian.