Abebe Bikila: Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian
Posted 27th July 2008
It was the Rome Olympics of 1960 and an unknown produced the biggest surprise. Abebe Bikila, who’d begun running as a shepherd boy in the hills of Ethiopia, strode barefoot to victory in the marathon. He was the first black African to win Olympic gold. Tim Judah tells his story
Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, running barefoot, draws away from Abdesselem Rhadi of Morocco near the finish of the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He went on to win with a new Olympic record time of 2 hours 15 minutes 16 seconds. Photograph: Central press/Getty images
Abebe Bikila was born on August 7 1932 in Jatto, a tiny village two to three hours’ drive north of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Even today Jatto is hard to get to. It lies in a remote countryside of rolling hills. Apart from teff, a unique form of Ethiopian wheat, it is cattle and wool country. The only form of house in the area is the classic tukul or round, straw-roofed mud hut. Bikila lived and grew up in one of these.
Years later, when Bikila was known throughout the world, Colin Gibson of World Sports magazine went to Ethiopia to interview him. He wrote that, “as a barefoot young shepherd-boy minding his family’s herds, Bikila was used to walking and running several miles every day in search of grazing on the lava-strewn crags surrounding his home. At 13 he went to school and played ganna, Ethiopia’s long-distance version of hockey, with the goalposts in the opposing teams’ villages – maybe a couple of miles apart.”
Three years after Bikila’s birth, Mussolini’s troops began their conquest of the country, using poison gas. They never properly occupied the whole of Ethiopia, least of all the countryside, and after the liberation in 1941, Bikila’s family returned to Jatto. Bikila’s basic education would have been at a church school where he learned to read and write. At about the age of 19, in 1951, he moved to Addis Ababa to follow his mother who now lived there. According to his daughter, Tsige Abebe, he was unemployed for a year but then joined the Imperial Bodyguard, the elite corps detailed to secure the Emperor’s protection.
The Ethiopia of the 1950s was a relatively quiet country. For Bikila these were halcyon days. As a young private, he played football, volleyball and basketball, and in late 1956 he took up running. He met with instant success. Onni Niskanen, the Guards’ Swedish sports trainer, had “seen this solider running from Sululta to Addis and back every day, and hit upon the idea of letting him try the marathon.” Sululta is a hilly area more than 20 kilometres north of Addis Ababa.
The Swedish connection was long established. In 1924, the young Ras Tafari, later to become Emperor Haile Selassie, went to Stockholm on his European tour. After the war, not wanting to be dependent on either the Americans or the Soviet Union, Selassie turned to Sweden again. Swedish officers were detailed to organise a cadet school to train officers for the Emperor’s Imperial Bodyguard. Niskanen, a reserve officer and trained sports instructor with friends in the military and sporting worlds, was clearly an ideal recruit. His first job was to be a sports instructor for the Imperial Bodyguard cadets. By 1950, he had been appointed director of physical education at the Ministry of Education.
Niskanen wrote later that the cadets were “fine boys. Easy to teach. Their sporting experience was limited to barefoot soccer. When they kicked the ball and their toes made a cracking noise, I could feel it in my own feet.” Niskanen quickly discovered that, in the absence of sports grounds and equipment, long-distance running was the natural sport for young Ethiopians. He had also noticed that running was the only way for many people to get from one place to another.
In 1956, he had helped train the first Ethiopian athletes ever to go to the Olympic games – in Melbourne. They achieved little success. Determined to do better, in September 1958 Niskanen returned to Sweden with three Ethiopians – Bikila, Mamo Wolde and Said Mussa. Onni told his family these Ethiopians were destined to be the great runners of the future. For fun, Ulf, Niskanen’s nephew, then seven years old, ran around the track at Boson in competition with Bikila. By the time he had made it around once, Bikila had streaked past four times.
Niskanen emphasised the importance of a relaxed running style. He said Bikila did not have inherent talent and had to put work into his technique: “When I started training him, he ran like a drilling soldier. A long-distance runner must concentrate on running with a minimum loss of energy.”
Robert Parienté, the veteran French sports journalist who worked for L’Equipe and who has written extensively about marathon running, says that Niskanen’s ideas about coaching were formed in the 1930s; they came from the so-called Swedish “natural school” in which a distinction was made between “endurance” and “stamina”. The first 30 kilometres are the period where “stamina” is needed – the ability to keep up a high speed for a long period of time. The trick is to arrive at the 30 kilometre point without being exhausted. The last 12 kilometres are the period of “endurance” where the ability to keep going is essential. According to Alain Lunzenfichter, also of L’Equipe, Bikila’s genius was his capacity for “extreme endurance”, for being able to keep fresh, “to run on endurance the whole way”.
Parienté also notes that Rhadi Ben Abdesselem, the Moroccan who came second to Bikila in Rome, had the same attributes and, like Bikila, had spent his youth as a shepherd at high altitude, in his case the Rif mountains. We now know that one of the reasons why Ethiopians, East Africans and others, like Rhadi, are naturally gifted in marathon running is because they come from areas of high altitude. In the 1960s, partly thanks to the success of Bikila and others, this was only just beginning to be understood. At its most basic level, the explanation relates to the way in which haemoglobin, the oxygen-containing protein in red blood cells, works slightly differently in people who come from high altitudes, where the air is thinner, enabling them to breathe more economically while running. According to Lunzenfichter: “Running 120 kilometres at 2,000 metres altitude is the equivalent of running 300 kilometres at lower levels.”
Niskanen early on recognised Bikila as a champion of the future. However, to other Ethiopians this didn’t become clear until July 1960. During the armed forces championships, Bikila beat Wami Biratu, until then Ethiopia’s fastest marathon runner, in a time of 2 hours 39 minutes 50 seconds. In 1952, Emil Zatopek’s record-smashing Helsinki Olympic marathon time had been 2 hours 23 minutes 0.3 seconds. Bikila was nowhere near this yet, but he was getting there.
There were only going to be two places for Rome. The final heats began with 50 or more runners taking part. Bikila won easily, recording a time of 2 hours 21 minutes 23 seconds. Niskanen and the others were astounded and ecstatic. Not only had Bikila sliced 18 minutes off his time since the armed forces contest of a few weeks before, but he had pulverised Zatopek’s record, too.
Over the next few days, Bikila and the other selected runner, Abebe Wakjira, were prepared for the trip. They were issued with two suits each, given $150 in pocket money and taken to meet the Emperor. Wakjira, 77 years old and living in relative poverty in the little provincial town of Fiche in 1997, remembered the Emperor asking:”How can such thin people win?”
The Rome Olympics were spectacular. They began on Thursday August 25 and all the city’s church bells were rung in celebration. Donato Martucci, then press chief of the Italian Olympic Committee, recalls: “We wanted to show that we were a free country, a new progressive nation, one that had left fascism behind.”
The Stadio Olimpico was built next to Mussolini’s old stadium, which is still, spectacularly, surrounded by scores of male nude statues.
Niskanen and Yidnekatchew Tessema, head of the Ethiopian team, kept their charges on a tight leash. They were allowed to watch some of the events and they toured some of the sights in a special Olympic tour bus. They were sent to bed early and there was absolutely no question of their sampling the Roman nightlife. With their pocket money they went out to do some shopping and bought T-shirts and (ordinary) shoes.
Niskanen took the marathon runners along the course but apparently they did not run it before the day. There now came the question of the shoes. Generally they did not run with shoes but there was, hovering in the background, the question of national prestige. If they ran without shoes, it might seem as though the Ethiopians were too poor to afford them. Bikila and Wakjira ran a 10 kilometre trial with shoes to test them out. It was not a success; they developed blisters. Wakjira recalls that before the race began, he and Bikila hid in the tent because people were laughing at them – two barefoot Ethiopians.
Just before the race, Rhadi Ben Abdesselem of Morocco managed to steal a good look at Bikila’s feet when they were both summoned by an Italian doctor. When he arrived Bikila was already there stretched out on a bed. “I was amazed by his feet. I knew later that he ran barefoot. The soles of his feet were as thick and black as coal. I remember that I wanted to touch his feet, the hard skin of which resembled the tyres of big military trucks. I was sure that he would feel nothing but, on the contrary, this hard skin was very sensitive: I hardly brushed it with my finger and he jumped up on the bed and gave me an astounded look.”
The race began at 5.30 on the afternoon of Saturday September 10. The sun was shining and the sky was a brilliant blue. The athletes gathered on Michelangelo’s sublime Piazza del Campidoglio, the statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius looking down on them. They then made their way down to the foot of the Cordonata, its great stairway, to where the race was due to begin. Bikila and Wakjira were wearing orange shorts and green shirts. Bikila’s was number 11. They went unnoticed. Harald Lechenperg, an Austrian journalist and photographer, noted that “the Swedish trainer has said that they are first-class runners, but for most onlookers they are just two men with tongue-twisting names.” In fact, Niskanen had revealed Bikila’s time of 2 hours 21 minutes 23 seconds which he had clocked up in the final Olympic trials. No one took it seriously.
The favourite among the 69 runners was a Russian called Sergei Popov. He had won the European title in Stockholm in 1958 with a breathtaking world best time of 2 hours 15 minutes 17 seconds. Highly rated, too, was Rhadi Ben Abdesselem, the Moroccan who had seen Bikila’s feet.
In a film of the race, Popov, hammer and sickle on his shirt, can be seen laughing and joking with a friend. For a second the camera catches Bikila’s face. He looks extremely tense. The commentary asks: “And what’s this Ethiopian called?”
As the athletes set off there was commotion. It took “frantic exertions”, says the report by Lord Burghley, a member of the International Olympic Committee, to “get the crowd pushed back so the runners would have enough room. The police were not much help.”
Bikila was not among the leaders at the beginning. Soon, however, groups began to detach themselves. Bikila was in the second, along with Popov. By the fifth kilometre, Bikila was towards the back of the first group of five with Rhadi. By the 15th kilometre, the leading group was down to four. The film cameraman racing along in a vehicle beside the runners was beginning to take notice of Bikila. He was focusing on his feet. At the 18th kilometre, the final duel began. Rhadi shot ahead with Bikila powering behind him. From now to the end, the race was between these two men alone. “The two run in rhythm like a four-legged tandem,” said the journalist Lechenperg. At the 30th kilometre, Bikila began to nudge ahead – but barely. Night was falling.
Lechenperg describes Bikila “running so lightly that his feet scarcely seem to touch the ground”. Most of the competitors took some refreshment at a snack bar beside the course, but not Bikila . At 39.3 kilometres, they passed the church of Domine Quo Vadis where St Peter is said to have met Christ while fleeing from Rome. Minutes later, they came to the fourth-century Ethiopian obelisk of Axum, looted by Mussolini’s soldiers a quarter of a century before. It is thought Niskanen told Bikila that when he saw the obelisk, which was exactly two kilometres from the finish, he was to break into his final sprint. By the 41st kilometre, he was five metres ahead. Rhadi could no longer catch him.
With a thousand metres to go, panic set in in the press box. Bikila was speeding to victory but none of the journalists had ever heard of him. One of them wrote: “Suddenly we could see the lights of a little convoy twinkling in the distance – here he came… trotting rhythmically and strongly up the Appian Way, the route of the conquerors in a city where his ancestors had once been slaves.”
Just before touching the tape, Bikila lifted his hands slightly. Officials immediately rushed towards him but he made to touch his toes and jog a little on the spot. Niskanen burst through the line to embrace his pupil. What shocked observers was how calm Bikila seemed. He was brought a blanket but waved it away. His time was a record 2 hours 15 minutes 16.2 seconds. This was eight minutes faster than Zatopek’s 1952 Olympic triumph. Within minutes Bikila was hoisted aloft and laughing for joy.
Bikila told Niskanen that he could have kept going for another 10 to 15 kilometres at the same speed.
What had just happened, Parienté says, was simply stunning. In athletics, there are no “spontaneous generations”; that is to say, athletes work their way through the competitions and so, by the time they reach the top, they are generally well known. And it was this that made Bikila extraordinary: “He was the spontaneous generation. We had never ever heard of him.” For Parienté, the second “amazing thing” was that this victory marked “the emergence of Africa”.
Bikila was the first black African to win a gold medal at the Olympics. His triumph captured the new spirit of Africa, the zeitgeist, the “winds of change” sweeping the continent. With Ghana’s independence in 1957, the whole of black Africa stood at the brink of independence and a glorious new future. And Bikila was its symbol. Poor, yes, barefoot yes – but victorious. He had struck a blow for a generation of Africans for whom the future still seemed so bright, despite the ominous chaos at that moment rocking the newly independent former Belgian Congo.
It was particularly sweet for the older generation of Ethiopians. The marathon had passed through the Piazza Venezia. It was here, from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia, that Mussolini had announced the beginning of his Ethiopian campaign 25 years before. Bikila returned home a conquering hero.
Two months after his return, General Mengistu Neway, the commander of the Imperial Bodyguard, had other things on his mind than celebrating the Olympic victory. He was plotting a coup and the overthrow of the Emperor. Other plotters included the head of the Imperial Police and the chief of palace security. The coup was scheduled for the night of December 13-14, a day after Haile Selassie had arrived in Brazil for a state visit. It failed because the Guard had not secured the support of the army. But the fighting came right into the heart of the city, with shells exploding inside the palace. Many of those closest to the Emperor were massacred.
Bikila took no part in the uprising, but was briefly held in detention after the coup. Most of the surviving Guards were disbanded and dispersed. One newspaper remarked baldly: “Abebe owes his life to his gold medal.”
Bikila was soon able to resume his new life on the international sports circuit and his eyes were firmly focused on a new goal: the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. His record in these years, however, was mixed. Although he was winning more often than not, his timings nowhere near matched his Olympic record.
On June 15 1961, Bikila and Niskanen went to Japan to participate in a marathon in Osaka. The trip marked an important first: Niskanen decided that Bikila had to wear shoes. The race was to be held on June 25, so there was time to train. Several kilometres of the course were on gravel. Kihachiro Onitsuka, the head of a large sports shoe company, who had witnessed Bikila’s victory in Rome, managed to secure an introduction. “I was very impressed,” he remarked. “I had the feeling I was dealing with a philosopher rather than a runner.” More than three decades later, he recalled telling Bikila,”Your bare feet are excellent, they are like cats’ paws. But still, shoes could improve your records.” Niskanen added his persuasion and Bikila finally agreed.
As the 1964 Olympics approached, disaster struck. Bikila was taken ill with appendicitis in September, 15 days before the team was due to set off for Tokyo and 40 days before the marathon itself. He was rushed to Addis Ababa’s Haile Selassie hospital. Niskanen described what happened next: “I knew he would be at the marathon start if no post-operative complications arose. Everything went well, and after a few days when I went to see him, he was up and walking around the hospital which he left after a week… There was no question of him training before leaving for Japan. Only walks and careful gymnastics. After arriving in Tokyo, we had three weeks until the marathon.”
The Ethiopian team touched down in Tokyo at 6.30am on September 29. Everyone knew the marathon was going to be tough. Since Rome, the world’s best time had been beaten three times. The British runner Basil Heatley had stormed to victory in the 1964 Windsor to Chiswick marathon with a time of 2 hours 13 minutes 55 seconds.
In the run-up to the race, which was to take place on October 21, Heatley recalls, “I won’t say I wrote the Ethiopians off, but knowing that Bikila had had appendicitis… “
There were 68 athletes on the starting line. Bikila can be seen striding purposefully up to the back of the group. He was wearing shoes and white socks. He was one of the last out of the stadium, but soon began to close on the others. Once in front, no one could catch him. He hardly needed to look behind to know he was alone. Peter Wilson of the Daily Mirror dubbed Bikila a metronome. “There isn’t, of course, an ounce of spare flesh on him and his legs could belong to some sinewy old rooster.”
Bikila won his second gold with a new world best time of 2 hours 12 minutes 11.2 seconds. He was the first person to win two marathon gold medals. He was not just an Ethiopian hero now but a pan-African hero, too. A poll in Jeune Afrique magazine, which is sold all over Francophone Africa, found that he was the most popular person in Africa.