Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Abebe Bikila: The Ethiopian Marathoner Who Wore No Shoes

The 1960 Olympic Games are given a historic makeover, as the events are held in Rome, Italy, a venue rich with ancient history.

With history serving as a backdrop for this Olympiad, it was only fitting that more history be made at these Games. Ethiopian marathon runner, Abebe Bikila, was primed for the challenge. At this Olympics, Bikila became the first black African Olympic champion. Representing Ethiopa, Bikila prepared intensely for the 1960 Games—so intensely that he suffered a blister on his foot, only days before the competition. Rather than be compromised by this injury, Abebe decided to run the marathon in bare feet. His competitors snickered at the sight of a marathon runner with no shoes.

The race was started at Campidglio Square and a sneakerless Abebe was not running with the leaders until the 15-kilometer mark, where he started to gain momentum. By the 20-kilometer mark, there were only two leaders: Abebe and Abdesselem Rhadi of Morocco, who was considered among the favorites for gold. At the 35-kilometer mark Abebe and Rhadi were running neck and neck. But with 1 kilometer left, Abebe pulled away, setting a new record of 2 hours 15 minutes and 16.25 seconds, improving the old record by about eight minutes. With bare feet, Abebe made his historic footprint on these Games.

During the next four years, Abebe competed in several marathons, but sealed his name in the record books at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. This time he wore shoes, and this time Abebe ran with the leaders of the pack, right from the start. At the 20-kilometer mark, he pulled himself away from the front runners, and from that point on, he never looked back. He won gold with a time of 2 hours 12 minutes 11.2 seconds, beating his own Rome record. When he crossed the finish line, he showed no signs of fatigue, convulsion or joy, he simply performed stretching exercises, as if no marathon had been run. Abebe became the first man in history to win back-to-back marathons.

Abebe was confident he could do it a third time in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, however dropped out of the race at the 15-kilometer mark, due to a leg injury. It is reported he told fellow Ethiopian runner Mamo Wolde, "I cannot continue running because I am seriously ill. The responsibility of winning a gold medal for Ethiopia is in your shoulder." At that point Wolde took the lead, and eventually the gold.

In 1969 Abebe was in a tragic car accident that left him a paraplegic. Never bittered by his situation, or left with a heart closed to competition and sport, Abebe strengthened his hands and made them skilled as an Archer. In 1970, he also participated in a 25KM cross-country sledge competition in Norway, where he won the gold.

He was grateful for his gifts and never one to ask why. Sadly, his young body gave out and he died tragically at the age of 41. Abebe was an Ethiopian and universal hero of the grandest kind.