Little Bits of History

Barefoot Runner

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 10, 2014
Abebe Bikila coming in for the win

Abebe Bikila coming in for the win

September 10, 1960: During the Summer Olympics held in Rome, the marathon race is run. Abebe Bikila was not supposed to be present for the event. He was born in 1932 into an Oromo family from the Abichu tribe on the very day the Los Angeles Olympic Marathon was run. Bikila’s father a shepherd but the younger man opted to find work as an Imperial Bodyguard. To that end, he walked to Addis Ababa 12.5 miles away to find work there. He was hired and while there came to the attention of Onni Niskanen, a Finnish born Swede who was hired by the Ethiopian government to train potential athletes. He began working with Bikila.

Bikila did not make the Ethiopian team. Wami Biratu was on the team, but broke his ankle in a soccer match and was pulled at the last minutes. Bikila was his replacement. Adidas was the shoe sponsor for the 1960 Summer Olympics but had few shoes left when Bikila went to get some. They did not fit comfortably and he couldn’t use them. It was now just a couple hours before the race and Bikila opted to run the race barefoot. His coach warned him of the competition and mention Rhadi Ben Abdesselam from Morocco who would be wearing number 26.

The race began late in the afternoon and both the start and finish were at the Arch of Constantine near the Coliseum. Bakila kept looking for Rhadi as he ran and never found the number 26. For some reason, the other man was wearing a different bib with a different number, 185. Near the 12.5 mile mark, two men had created a gap between themselves and the rest of the pack, Bakila and 185. Bakila kept looking forward, hoping to find his greatest challenger, not realizing they were running side by side. With less than a half mile to go, Bikila sprinted to the finish line and completed the race in record time of 2:15:16.2. He was the first sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold medal.

In the following Summer Olympics held in Tokyo, Bikila once again won the marathon event even though he was, once again, not expecting to run. In the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Bakila was expected to run and did, only to suffer an injury less than half way through the race, which incapacitated him and force him to drop out. During a spate of civil unrest in Addis, Bakila had to swerve while driving in order to miss a group of protesting students. His car landed in a ditch. Although the athlete survived, he was left a quadriplegic. He did get to attend the 1972 Olympics, but only as a spectator. He died in 1973 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 41 years old.

If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. – Emil Zatopek

Toeing the starting line of a marathon, regardless of the language you speak, the God you worship or the color of your skin, we all stand as equal. Perhaps the world would be a better place if more people ran. – Dean Karnazes

What could be funnier than a fat person trying to run a marathon? – Jo Brand

I’ve been running a full marathon every year for more than 20 years, and my record is getting worse. Getting older, getting worse. It’s natural. – Haruki Murakami

Also on this day: Close Your Eyes; Touch Your Nose – In 1897, the first citation for drunk driving is issued.
No More Thimbles – In 1846, Elias Howe received a patent for a sewing machine.
Italian Grad Prix – In 1961, a racing disaster occurred.
Nyon Conference – In 1937, the conference began.


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