Abebe Bikila was born on August 7, 1932,from his father Bikila Demissie and mother Woodenesh Beneberu. the day of the Los Angeles Olympic Marathon, in the village of Jato, located 25 kilometers outside the town of Mendida, Ethiopia. His father was a farmer. Abebe decided to work for theImperial Bodyguard to support his family, and walked over 20 kilometer to Addis Ababa where he started as a private bodyguard for the members of the royal family.
Onni Niskanen, a Finnish-born Swede, was hired by the Ethiopian government to train potential athletes. He soon spotted Bikila.
1960 Summer Olympics
Bikila was added to the Ethiopian Olympic team only at the last moment, as the plane to Rome was about to leave, as a replacement for Wami Biratu, who had broken his ankle in a football match. Major Onni Niskanen entered Bikila and Abebe Wakgira in the marathon.
Adidas, the shoe sponsor at the 1960 Summer Olympics, had few shoes left when Bikila went to try out shoes and he ended up with a pair that didn’t fit comfortably, so he couldn’t use them. A couple of hours before the race, Bikila decided to run barefoot, the way he’d trained for the race. Bikila was warned by Niskanen about his main rivals, one of whom was Rhadi Ben Abdesselam from Morocco, who was supposed to wear number 26. For unknown reasons, Rhadi did not acquire his black marathon bib before the race, and instead was wearing his regularly assigned track and field bib number 185.
The late afternoon race had its start point and finish at the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum.
During the race Bikila passed numerous runners as he searched for Rhadi’s number 26. By about 20 km, Bikila and Rhadi (actually wearing number 185) had created a gap from the rest of the pack. Bikila kept looking forward to find the runner with number 26, unaware that Rhadi was running right beside him. They stayed together until the last 500 m, when Bikila sprinted to the finish line. Bikila won in a record time of 2:15:16.2, becoming the first Sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold medal. He finished 25 seconds ahead of Rhadi.
After the race, when Bikila was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, “I wanted the whole world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”
On 13 December 1960, while Haile Selassie was on a state visit to Brazil, his Imperial Guard forces, led by General Mengitsu Neway, staged an unsuccessful coup, briefly proclaiming Selassie’s eldest son Asfa Wossen as Emperor. Fighting took place in the heart of Addis Ababa, shells detonated inside the Jubilee Palace, and many of those closest to the Emperor were killed.
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 boldly: “Abebe owes his life to his gold medal.”
In 1961, Bikila ran marathons in Greece, Japan, and Košice in Czechoslovakia, all of which he won. Bikila entered the 1963 Boston Marathon and finished in just 5th place—the only time in his career that he finished a marathon and did not win. He returned to Ethiopia and he didn’t compete in another marathon until the one in Addis Ababa in 1964. He won this race, taking 2:23:14 to complete the course.
40 days prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, during a training run near Addis Ababa, Abebe Bikila started to feel pain. Unaware of the cause of the pain, he attempted to overcome this pain but collapsed. He was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. He was operated on and shortly thereafter and even during his recovery period he started jogging in the hospital courtyard at night.
1964 Summer Olympics
Abebe Bikila traveled to Tokyo but was not expected to compete. He did enter the marathon. He used the same strategy as in 1960: to stay with the leaders until the 20 kilometer point, then slowly increase his pace. After 15 km he only had company from Ron Clarke of Australia and Jim Hogan of Ireland. Shortly before 20 km only Hogan was in contention and by 30 km, Bikila was 40 seconds in front of Hogan and two minutes in front of Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan in third place. He entered the Olympic stadium alone to the cheers of 70,000 spectators. He finished the marathon in a new world record time of 2:12:11:2; 4 minutes, 8 seconds in front of the silver medalist Basil Heatley of Great Britain. Kokichi Tsuburaya was third. He was the first athlete in history to win the Olympic marathon twice. After finishing he astonished the crowd: not appearing exhausted, he started a routine of stretching exercises. He later stated that he could have run another 10 kilometers.
Bikila returned to Ethiopia to a hero’s welcome once again. He was again promoted by the Emperor, and he received his own car, a white Volkswagen Beetle.
Once again Bikila and Mamo Wolde were entered in the marathon (symbolically, Bikila was issued bib number 1 for this race). This time however Bikila had to leave the race after approximately 17 km, due to an injury in his right knee. According to Bud Greenspan’s Favorite Stories, an Olympics documentary, Bikila broke a small bone in his foot a few days before the race, while running barefoot. He watched his friend and long time running partner Mamo Wolde win. Mamo Wolde later stated that if Bikila had not been injured, he would surely have won.
In 1969, during civil unrest in Addis, Bikila was driving his Volkswagen Beetle when he had to swerve to avoid a group of protesting students. He lost control of his car and it landed in a ditch, trapping him. He was freed out of the car but the accident left him quadriplegic. He was operated on at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England and his condition improved to paraplegic. Niskanen convinced him to compete in archery competitions for athletes in wheelchairs and Abebe joked that he would win the next Olympic marathon in a wheelchair.
Abebe was invited as a special guest to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich where he witnessed his countryman Mamo Wolde fail to match Bikila’s twin marathon victories; Wolde finished third behind American Frank Shorter. After Shorter received his medal he went to Bikila to shake his hand.
On 25 October 1973, Abebe Bikila died in Addis Ababa at the age of 41 from a cerebral hemorrhage, a complication related to the accident of four years earlier. He left behind his wife and four children. His funeral in Addis Ababa was attended by 75,000 and Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia proclaimed a national day of mourning for Ethiopia’s national hero. Newspapers throughout Africa eulogized him as an inspiration to their own distance runners, some of whom won gold medals in future Olympics. Bikila was interred at Saint Joseph’s Church Cemetery in Addis Ababa.
A stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honor. The American Community School of Addis Ababa dedicated its gymnasium to Abebe Bikila in the late 1960s. In August 2005, with the assistance of A Glimmer of Hope Foundation and its supporters Isabel and Dave Welland, an Oromo school named Yaya Abebe Bikila Primary Village School was erected in Bikila’s honor by the local Mendida community. The school sits a few hundred meters from the remains of the village of Jato.
- “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism”
- “Men of success meet with tragedy. 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 accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily.”
Bikila’s victory at the 1964 Olympics is featured in the 1965 documentary film Tokyo Olympiad. Footage from that film was later recycled for the 1976 thriller film Marathon Man.
Bikila was featured in the Bud Greenspan film “The Marathon”. It chronicled his two Olympic victories and ended with a dedication ceremony for a gymnasium named for him shortly before his death.
2009 Atletu (The Athlete) is a film directed by Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew which focuses on the final years of Bikila’s life: his quest to regain Olympic glory, his accident (the circumstances of which are changed), his determination to compete again. The film was shot in 35mm, from the Arctic Circle to the Equator.
In 2010, Vibram introduced the “Bikila” model of its FiveFingers line of minimalist shoes.
Robin Williams made reference to Bikila’s barefoot running in his stand-up special “Weapons of Self Destruction”, saying, “[Bikila] won the Rome Olympics running barefoot. He was then sponsored by Adidas. He ran the next Olympics; he carried the fucking shoes.”
In 2010, the Rome Marathon celebrated 50 years of Abebe Bikila’s Olympics Race. To honour him, Ethiopian runner Siraj Gena ran the last 300 meters of the race barefoot and won it (for this he was awarded 5000 euro bonus).
When you see a cartoon of a runner on the Google home page today, don’t ignore it. It is someone you well know. Someone Ethiopia is always proud of.
Google has dedicated its front Page for Abebe Bikila’s 81st birthday. It was on August 7, 1932 the barefoot runner was born.
While trying to access http://www.google.com.et every one will come across a cartoon of the two times marathon champion close to the finishing line on the track.
The picture is linked to various online resources with information, videos and pictures of the athlete. Abebe won two gold medals in the 1960 Rome Marathon and Tokyo 1964.
Ethiopia has become well known in athletics since then. A lot of great runners has followed his foot stape and won a lot of medals not only for the nation but also for the entire continent, Africa.
Google dedicates its home page for commemorating the birthday of influential and famous people of the world, every day.