Born to a shepherd in a town 25 kilometres outside Mendida, Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila’s family was one of modest means. As he did not grow up with much, Bikila decided to help his family out with finances, and the strong young boy joined the Imperial Guard of Ethiopia, working as a private security officer and bodyguard for the members of the Royal family of Ethiopia.
Living far away from civilization and with few means, Bikila walked a staggering 20 kilometres to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia for that job.
Former athlete Onni Niskanen of Finland was recruited in the 1950s by the government of Ethiopia to spot athletic talent in the country, and it was he who spotted Bikila’s prodigious talent.
The Ethiopian team had been selected to participate in the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, and despite his immense skill, Bikila was not even selected, and would likely not even have been part of Ethiopia’s Olympic squad that year had national running champion Wami Biratu not taken ill at the last moment. Biratu, who had taken seriously ill, was left unable to compete, and Bikila was called in so much at the last moment that the plane to Rome had been ready to leave when he was intimated of his selection.
As a result of this, Bikila had not been fitted for shoes, gear, or anything else runners at the Olympics might need ahead of the game. Adidas, who had designed and sponsored shoes for the team, had only a few pairs of shoes left – none of which were either the right size for Bikila or fit his feet comfortably.
The athlete went on to take a pair of shoes despite this, but did not use them whilst training, choosing instead to do so barefoot at the track in Italy. Asked why, he had simply said he was “used to” training that way.
1960 Summer Olympic Games, Rome – first Olympic win
At the Summer Olympics in Rome, coach Niskanen took Bikila aside, telling him he would need to look out for Moroccan runner Rhadi Ben Abdesselam, who had shown an extremely quick pace ahead of the Olympics.
The Finn told his pupil to “look out for Number 26” (Abdesselam’s bib number at the marathon) and that the Moroccan athlete would be Bikila’s biggest competition, advice the Ethiopian took to heart.
Bikila, extremely uncomfortable in the shoes he had been given, decided not to use them at all come race time. Having no idea what Abdesselam looked like, Bikila searched as he ran for bib number 26 as he passed the pack of runners during the course of the race.
Unbeknownst to Bikila, Abdesselam had worn his regular track-and-field number – 185 – because he was unable to find the bib numbered 26. The Ethiopian had been running beside the Moroccan championship winner whilst he looked forward to search for him.
He had no idea then that his biggest competition was actually struggling to keep up with him as he raced towards the finish line.
The pair managed to stay neck-and-neck with each other until the final stretch of the run, when Bikila, with a final burst of energy, broke into a sprint.
Abdesselam was unable to keep his energy levels up to Bikila’s, and faltered.
Eventually, Abebe Bikila was crowned the 1960 Summer Olympics’ marathon gold medal winner. In the process of winning, he also set several records.
He finished the marathon in a record time of 2:15:16.2, faster than any runner till that point in time – the current record, 2:06:32, was set by Kenyan athlete Samuel Kamau Wanjiru at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
In doing so, he also became the first ever athlete from Sub-Saharan Africa to win an Olympic gold medal, at a time when race relations were still in limbo in several parts of the world.
Interviewed on the podium after the race, Bikila was asked by a reporter why he chose to run barefoot. Instead of discussing his discomfort, Bikila simply said “I wanted the whole world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”
It may have been his first Olympic medal, but it certainly wasn't his last.
In the interim
As a member of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard, Bikila was at risk when the Guard staged a coup against then-emperor Haile Selassie. The coup involved shelling, gunfire and violence as explosives were detonated, and numerous casualties resulted from the melee.
Bikila, who was detained following the coup, did not suffer as several others had. Although he was not himself part of the uprising against the emperor, suspicion had still been aroused against the Olympic winner.
Choosing to focus on his running career instead, Bikila took part in the 1961 Marathons of Greece, Japan and the Kosice Peace Marathon in then-Czechoslovakia (which became the Czech Republic in 1993), and won each time.
Continuing his illustrious ‘track’ record, Bikila participated in the Boston Marathon of 1963, and finished, by his own standards, a lowly fifth place. He had been so successful that this was the first time the Ethiopian had participated in a marathon he had not won.
Deeply affected by his defeat, Bikila chose to return to his native country, training in the capital Addis Ababa for a year. Rejuvenated after training, he took part in the capital’s biggest marathon, completing the course in 2:23:14 as he returned to his winning ways.
He’d compete in his second Olympic games that same year.
Sheer commitment: 1964 Olympics, Tokyo
Having spent nearly a year off the marathon circuit to train after what he considered a bad win, Bikila won the marathon in Addis Ababa, and had been training to return to the Olympic Games that year in Tokyo, Japan.
With only a little over a month to go for the Games, Bikila, who had been training in the capital, felt a sharp pain in his right side, but thought it was related to his running, ignoring it as he pushed on to complete the circuit. It was not, and Bikila collapsed on the field.
As it turned out, the acute pain he had ignored for so long was actually a gravely serious case of appendicitis, and he was immediately operated on. Not one to allow surgery to hamper his training, Bikila, clad in his hospital gown, used the hospital courtyard as his training ground.
A month later, he began to get ready for the 1964 Olympics. His condition led many to speculate he would not participate at all, although he travelled with the Ethiopian team to Tokyo.
He enrolled for the marathon, and despite some pain, soldiered on through the 42km track. Using the same strategies that had propelled him to success in the 1960 games, racing against Australian running icon Ron Clarke, who’d go on to set a mammoth seventeen world records over his career, and Irish European Championships marathon winner Jim Hogan.
In the end, he took a second consecutive Olympic title, this one in an even quicker time. Finishing in 2:12:11.2, he set yet another Olympic record. At the 1960 Olympics he had finished 25 seconds ahead of his closest competition – this time, he finished over four minutes ahead of his competitor and eventual silver medal winner Basil Heatley of Great Britain.
His time was not the only Olympic record he set; with his win in Tokyo, he became the first ever athlete to win two Olympic games in a row. The kicker? He was not even tired after completing the 42km run, and told assembled reporters he could have “run another 10 kilometres easily.”
He still wasn’t done with the Olympics.
Although he also enrolled in, and began, the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Bikila was forced to quit 17km with an injured right knee. Doctors later found he had run those 17km (and trained prior) despite having broken small bones in his foot.
Tragedy strikes – and the legacy he left behind
Bikila by now had shifted base to become an Addis Ababa native. The country – and city – had been in a period of serious civil unrest, and Bikila had been driving through town when he came across a group of student protesters. Swerving to avoid crashing into them, Bikila lost control of his vehicle, which crashed into a ditch and was left mangled.
Although he received fairly quick medical attention as he was cut out of the car, the two-time Olympic medal winner, who won multiple marathons in his lifetime, was left paraplegic, with no hope of full rehabilitation.
The accident and its devastating results would have left most others mentally shattered, but Bikila managed to make light of the situation, joking with Niskanen and the public that he would “win another marathon next year, this time in a wheelchair.”
In an interview, Bikila said he had come to terms with the accident. "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,” he said.
He attended the next Olympic games, too – this time as a special honoree and guest.
Four years later, suffering a cerebral haemorrhage as a result of complications for the accident, Bikila passed away in his home.
He was only 41 years old.
His death led the Emperor to declare a national day of mourning in Bikila’s honour. Since then, he has had a stadium and a running award named after him, and a school was erected in his name close to what remains of the village he was born in.
It continues to combat a lack of education resultant from poverty among the most seriously impoverished.
He may have died young, but Abebe Bikila left behind a running legacy that is revered to this day.