He would go on to be considered as one of the greatest marathon runners of all time, but it was only through a stroke of fortune that Abebe Bikila even featured at Rome 1960. He was not originally selected for the Ethiopian team, and was only added at the last minute after Wami Biratu was injured while playing in a football match.
But then again, nothing about Abebe Bikila’s athletics career had ever been straightforward. The son of a shepherd, he was working as a bodyguard to the Ethiopian royal family when his athletic potential was first spotted and he was soon showing great promise in training.
However, his selection for the team was still a surprise, and when he arrived in Rome, there were no shoes to fit him. He initially tried running with a pair that weren’t quite the right size but didn’t like them and so, on the day of the marathon, he reverted to running barefoot, just as he had in training.
His coach Onni Niscanon, told him to look out for the Moroccan runner Rhadi Ben Abdesselam who, he said, would be wearing number 26. Instead, Rhadi ended up sporting the number 185 bib, which confused Abebe, who carried on looking for the runner wearing number 26, even though Rhadi was right next to him.
The race was unusual in that it started in the late afternoon, finished in darkness and did not enter the Olympic stadium for the finale. Yet there was no shortage of excitement and drama, with the barefoot Abebe only pulling away from Rhadi in the closing 500m, yet sprinting so hard that he won by 25 seconds, breaking the world record in the process (02:15:16). When asked about his decision to run in bare feet, he said: “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”
His victory at the games 60 years ago, made him the first athlete from sub-Saharan Africa to win an Olympic gold medal and launched an era of great African distance runners that continues to this day.
Abebe Bikila won a second gold in astonishing style by breaking the World Record once again (02:12:11) four years later, at Tokyo Olympic, when he recovered from a bout of appendicitis to retain his title.