The Eternal City hosted the Olympic Games in 1960; a tournament that brought the Olympics into modern era. One man came to symbolise that modernism and it he came out of nowhere. Adebe Bikila form Ethiopia was an unknown before the games won the marathon barefoot becoming the first Sub-Saharan African to win gold ushering in a new era of East African dominance in the world of long distance running.
Rome provided the most splendid of backdrops to the tournament, a heady mix of the classical, from which the modern Olympic concept had sprung, amidst the post-war boom of Italy in the 60’s. The fascist era had ended 17 years previously and the Olympics was the chance to lay the ghosts of the past to rest while ushering in a new and optimistic era for the Mediterranean nation. Other parts of Europe were crippled with the legacy of the Second World War – although Germany competed as a single nation the Berlin Wall was erected a few months after the games. It wasn’t until 1990 that German Olympic team was to reunite.
Television was to become for the first time a major player with the first commercial broadcasting of the games. For the first time since the war, the political and cultural slate of Europe and the world had been wiped clean the Olympics became a globally broadcast stage on which new and order could be established.
Adebe Bikila was born in Jato a village in Ethiopia. As a young man he walked to Addis Abba to join the Imperial Bodyguard of the Emperor Haile Selassie to support his family and had only gained entrance to the Olympics when another athlete injured his ankle in a football match. Little was known about the Ethiopian, although it was reported that his personal best surpassed the then world record a notion that was generally dismissed. On his arrival in Rome Bikila tried the shoes the shoe sponsor Adidas provided but they didn’t fit well so he decided to run the Marathon barefoot.
Unusually, the marathon was scheduled to start in the late afternoon and run through the evening, starting and finishing at the Arch of Constantine, just outside the coloseum. Before the race Bikila had been told about his most dangerous rival Rhadi Ben Abdesselam form Morocco who was supposed to wear the number 26 and Bikila was determined to chase him down. He started easily in the race, keeping pace for the first half and as the evening light faded in Rome the marathon route along the Apian Way was lit by hundreds of torch bearers making for an extraordinarily beautiful sight.
As he pounded out the kilometres into the second half of the race, Bikila began to hunt down his rival. However, Abdesselam had ended up wearing the number 185 so when Bikila came to the head of the race he was unaware that his rival had been running alongside him the whole time. He stayed with Abdesselam until the last 500m where he pulled away in spectacular fashion to finish with a world record time of 2:15:16.2. While his competitors collapsed in exhaustion around the finish line Bikila jumped and danced his way around the stadium. When asked why he ran barefoot he said: “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia has always won with determination and heroism”.
24 years after Italy had colonised Ethiopia here was this unknown, barefoot colonial subject returned to conquer the tournament as a symbol of a new and unfettered Italy. Bikila became a national hero at home in Ethiopia. However a few month later he got caught up in a failed military Coup he was detained by the army but subsequently released, one newspaper proclaimed that ‘Bikila ‘owed his life to his gold medal’. He continued to run marathons of the next few years winning all of them except for one in Boston in 1963, the only marathon he ever entered and failed to win.
During a training run near Addis Abba in preparation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics he felt a pain in his side, continuing, he tried to shrug it off, but collapsed in a heap and was rushed to hospital where he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. Following surgery he started jogging in the hospital courtyard at night. He travelled to Tokyo but was not expected to compete. He entered the marathon and became the first athlete to win the Olympic marathon twice. He said afterward that he could have run another 10 kilometres.
Again he received a hero’s welcome in Ethiopia he was promoted by the Emperor and received his first car a white Volkswagon Beetle. In 1969 during civil unrest in Addis, Bikila was driving when he swerved to avoid a group of protesters he lost control of the car and ended up in a ditch trapped in the car. He was freed form the vehicle but the accident had left him a quadriplegic he was operated on but remained a paraplegic. He took up archery and competed in competitions for archers in wheelchairs and he joked that he would win the next Olympic marathon in a wheelchair. “Men of success meet with tragedy,” he said. “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 accept those victories just as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily.
In 1973 Adebe Bikila died at the age of 41 from a cerebral haemorrhage, a complication related to his previous accident. His funeral was attended by 75,000 Ethiopians and the Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia declared a national day of morning for the national hero. Today a stadium in Addis Ababa is named after him. In 2010 the Rome marathon celebrated 50 years since Adebe Bikila’s Olympic gold, Ethiopian Sinaj Gena won the race but ran the last 300 metres of the race barefoot to honour the legend from Jato.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty