Abebe Bikila, Marathon Runner

Abebe Bikila, Marathon Runner

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Abebe Bikila’s run to international fame started by accident. Abebe had wanted to run the marathon for Ethiopia in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. But his reported personal best time in the marathon was faster than the world record, and race officials were skeptical. He was passed over in favor of another runner, who subsequently broke his ankle playing football. Abebe, then a private in Haile Selassie’s Imperial Army, was chosen for the team only as a last-minute replacement.

Abebe’s running shoes for the Olympics were a poor fit, causing blisters. He decided to run barefoot, as he had often done on the high plains of Ethiopia. Even among a field of lean marathon runners, Abebe stood out. With his bare feet and his distinctive build — at 1.78 meters he weighed only 57 kilograms — he was a singular figure.

Less than halfway through the 42-kilometer race, Abebe and Moroccan Rhadi Ben Abdesselam had pulled away from the rest of the runners. By the time he re-entered the city, racing in the moonlight, Abebe had pulled away from the Moroccan. He finished the race with a time of 2 hours, 15 minutes and 16 seconds — a world record. And as the other runners trickled in, limp from exhaustion, Abebe stretched and even danced around.

Photos of the barefoot Abebe came to symbolize the entire 1960 Olympics. With one race, he became perhaps the best-known African on the planet at that time. He was the first East African to win any kind of Olympic medal.

The next year, Abebe entered marathons in Greece, Japan and Czechoslovakia. He won all of them.

But Abebe wasn’t finished. In 1964, with 40 days to go until the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, he collapsed in pain while training. He was diagnosed with acute appendicitis and had immediate surgery. He was not expected to recover in time for the Olympics.

But he did recover, and he competed again in the marathon, this time wearing shoes. As in 1960, he began pulling away from most of the other runners by the halfway point. After 30 kilometers, he was 40 seconds ahead of his closest competitor. He finished with a time of 2 hours, 12 minutes and 11 seconds — another Olympic record — and more than 4 minutes ahead of the next runner. He became the first man to win the Olympic marathon twice.

Four years later, competing in the Olympics in Mexico City, Abebe left the marathon with a broken bone in his knee. The winner later said that Abebe was on a pace to win the race, had he not been injured.

A year later, Abebe lost control of his Volkswagen sedan and crashed in Addis Ababa. The accident made him a quadriplegic. Over time, he regained the use of his arms and competed again, this time as a cross-country sledder. In 1973, at the age of 41, he died of a brain hemorrhage, a complication linked to his car accident. An estimated 75,000 people attended his funeral.

Today, African distance runners are the world’s elite — 13 Africans have won medals in the men’s marathon since Abebe. African men are even more dominant in the 10-kilometer and 5-kilometer races, as are African women.

The barefoot man from Ethiopia did it first.

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