Abebe Bikila the Legend
It is a thriller rare in modern Olympics. With amazing grace he changed the Olympic Marathon leaving colorful footsteps forever. First he ran barefooted then in shoes.
Abebe Bikila was born in 1932 in the North Showa region of Ethiopia, in a village called Jato. He grew up in a typical village setting. He received some church education. In his youth, he was noted as a good swimmer, Guna player, a type of hockey played during Christmas, and a skillful horse rider. At the age of 17 he moved to the capital city, Addis Ababa, where he began a military carrier in the imperial bodyguard regiment.
To keep the troops physically fit, the army unit had regular sport activities. This program gave him a chance to develop his natural talent for sport. Later on as a symbol of unity the armed forces established a yearly sport competition event, which was designed to reunite the three forces, The Army, The Air Force and The Navy in shared activities. In his first Annual National Army Athletic competition, he finished the race in 2 hours 39 minutes and 50 seconds. That opened a new chapter in his life. He was noted by the Swedish coach Onni Niskanen who was then a director of athletics under the ministry of education and later an official of the Red Cross.
With the assistance of Niskanen, Abebe made an intensive preparation for the 1960 Rome Olympics. Abebe Wakijera was the only other athlete who qualified to go to Rome besides Abebe Bikila. Just days before the competition, Abebe had a blister in his foot due to running with a new shoe. Some had claimed that he used to train on barefoot. However, it was absolutely not true. He decided to run barefoot only as a result of inconvenience. Sergey Popov of Russia, who was the world record holder, Abdesselem Rhadi of Morocco, who won the international race that same year and another notable, Barry Maggee, of New Zealand were among the participants and the favorites to win the race.
The race began at Campidoglio Square. Abebe kept running close but was not in the leaders pack until they approached the 10 kilometer mark. By the 15 kilometers, he gained momentum and joined the leaders group. By then the competition came down to four people which included Rhadi and Arthur Kelly of Britain followed by the Belgian Van den Dreissche and Abebe Bikila. At the 20th kilometer mark Abebe and Rahdi were running side by side leaving everybody behind them. They passed the 35th kilometer mark running neck to neck. With 1 kilometer left, Abebe Bikila drew away. The distance between the two front runners gradually grew. Running strongly Abebe Bikila finished the race with a new record time of 2 hours 15 minutes and 16.25 second improving the previous record that was set at Helsinki in 1952 by about 8 minutes.
When Niskanen was later asked by a reporter if he was surprised by Abebe’s victory, he replied that he was not and he added that “others do not know Abebe as I do. He has no fear for his rivals. He has strong willpower and dedication. There is none like Abebe I had ever seen. Abebe was made by Abebe, not by me or anyone.”
In the following years he participated in several international competitions. However, the competition that gained him more fame in the history of the Olympics came four years later at the Tokyo Olympics. The 18th Olympic Game, the first in Asia was spectacularly organized. The marathon was highly regarded by the Japanese as a real test of human endurance compare to a life-long journey.
The race started with sixty-eight world class athletes. Immediately Ron Clark of Australia and the Irishman Jim Hogan took the lead pack. This time running with shoes, Abebe stayed close in the front lead. Gradually he advanced and at the 20th kilometer mark he became first opening gap between himself and the other two front runners.
Running with soft strides; Abebe became the lone runner leaving everyone behind. He was already a favorite of the Japanese. He won the Mainichi marathon held in Osaka in June of 1961. Estimated by the police over a million spectators lined up in the streets cheered him at every step of the way. He won the race with a record time of 2 hours 12 minutes 11.2 second improving his own record time in Rome. Once again, he crossed the track into the field and preformed his stretching exercise. He dazzled and astounded the 80,000 spectators. Basil Heatley came second followed by Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan in the stadium. Abebe had undergone an appendectomy 36 days before the Olympic. At the finish, he had showed no expression of fatigue nor convulsion or enthusiasm.
In a news conference after the event Abebe predicted that he would win in the 1968 Olympic in Mexico City. Mexico City situated at a similar altitude to Addis Ababa. While training before the 1967 Zarauz competition Abebe hurt his leg. He competed in the race but failed to finish the course. He was sent to Germany for the necessary treatment by the Emperor; however the discomfort to his leg was recurring during training.
Very much confident, he arrived in Mexico City with the intention of winning and defending his Olympic title for the third time. He started in the leading pack running ahead most of the way. Many were certain that Abebe would win a gold medal. Nevertheless, his injury to his leg could not take the pain any more. As the pain became unbearable, he decided to leave the competition. It was reported that he encouraged Mamo Wolde who was in the race, “I cannot continue running because I am seriously ill. The responsibility of winning a gold medal for Ethiopia is in your shoulder.” At the 15 kilometer mark Abebe dropped out of the race. Mamo Wolde took the lead running alone with a little competition from the rest of the athletes and finished the race in the first place in 2 hours 20 minutes and 26.4 seconds.
Accident and Post-accident Life
In 1969 while traveling back from his home town Abebe had a tragic car accident. Realized by the Emperor that he could not successfully be treated at the local medical facility, he was sent to the Stoke Mandeville hospital in England. After eight months of treatment he returned to Ethiopia in a wheelchair. Upon his return he was welcomed by a cheering crowd. His physical limit never made him give up his love for sport. His competitive sprits never diminished.
It was at the hospital in Stoke Mandeville that he strengthened his hands and made them skilled. Two years later, 1971, he entered in a paraplegic sport competition in England competed in Archery among hundred competitors he finished seventh. In that same year he participated in the International Paraplegic Games in Norway. He competed in dog sled race and finished first. As a result of his achievements as an outstanding marathoner and paraplegic sport person, he was respected and received with warm welcome by fans, officials and Presidents alike around the world.
In 1972, he was invited to the Munich Olympic Games as a special guest. He was received by standing ovation as he entered the stadium in a wheelchair. In remembrance of his fortieth birthday a gala celebration was held at the Olympic village in the presence of athletes and officials of the organization.
The Death of a Hero
Abebe Bikila died In 1973 October 20 at the age of 41. He was buried at the St. Joseph cemetery. An estimated of 75,000 mourners, His majesty, members of the royal families, ambassadors as well as local and international reporters attended the state funeral.
Source: Abebe Bikila