Abebe Bikila – Barefoot Champion
Fifty-five years ago today, Abebe Bikila stunned the sporting world by winning the Marathon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome barefoot. Bikila not only set a world record but became the first sub-saharan African to win a gold medal. Four years later, he became the first person to win consecutive gold medals.
Bikila was added to the Ethiopian Olympic team only at the last moment, as the plane to Romewas about to leave, as a replacement for Wami Biratu, who was seriously ill. Major Onni Niskanen entered Bikila and Abebe Wakjira 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. . . . 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.”
Bikila traveled to the 1964 Olympics in Rome but was not expected to compete since he was recovering from an appendectomy only 40 days earlier. Nonetheless, Bikila ran, albeit with shoes this time, a won setting another world record and becoming the first repeat Marathon gold medalist.
Once again Bikila . . . entered in the marathon . . . 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 the gold medal. Mamo Wolde later stated that if Bikila had not been injured, he would surely have won.
In 1969, a car accident left Bikila a paraplegic. Nonetheless, he was invited as a special guest to the 1972 Olympics and American Frank Shorter greeted Bikila after winning the gold. He also participated in the 1972 Para-Olympics in archery. He died from a brain hemorrhage the next year at the age of 41.
Fifty years after Bikila’s barefoot victory in Room, another Ethiopian (Siraj Gena) won the Rome Marathon and ran the last 300 meters of the race barefoot in tribute to Bikila.
His life was the subject of the 2009 film, “The Athlete”.