Abebe Bikila is an Ethiopian legendary marathon runner, the first African to win a gold medal and set a new record at the Olympics. In the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, to the surprise of many, Abebe run the marathon bare foot in the cobblestone roads of Rome, and set a world record. He then run in in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and not only defended his title but also bested his own record in the distance.
Abebe is considered as a sign of resilience and commitment. His spirit of winning and survival in the athletics and beyond is exemplary. He is also credited for Ethiopia’s special place in the long distance race in the world, inspiring generations to become world champions and Olympics gold medalists. He is a marking point for Eastern Africa permanence in the long distance race.
Abebe was born on August 7, 1930, in a small community known as Jato (Then part of Shewa District), now in Oromia Region, Ethiopia. His birthday coincides with the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics Marathon. A son of a shepherd, Abebe was raised on a farm, supporting his family. His parents were separated when he was young and he was raised by his mother and stepfather. As A child Abebe loved running around his village and playing Yegena Chewata (an Ethiopian version of Hockey). He was the fastest and strongest amongst his peers.
Abebe’s long and glorified Athletics Career starts when he joined the Imperial Guard, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at the age of 24. To keep the special army fit, the unit had several sport activities. A born athlete, Abebe took the opportunity to develop his love for sport activities and focused more in the long distance running. In the mid-1950s Abebe started his training in Sululta (Out skirt of Addis Ababa) running 20KM back and forth. His effort was noticed by the Imperial Guard Swedish trainer Onni Niskanen. Onni was a director of athletics in the Ministry of Education. Recognizing Abebe’s potential in the long distance run, he decided to coach him so that he can prepare for Marathon.
In the Ethiopian Army Championships, Abebe debated his Marathon career. On his first race, he finished second to Wami Biratu.
There are two conflicting thought on how Abebe first got his shot to the Olympics in Rome. While some argue that he was a replacement at the last monument for missing runner, others argue that his participation is long planned. With the assistance of coach Onni, Abebe made intense preparation for the Rome Olympics. However, just a few days earlier to the Olympics, Abebe had a blister on his foot due to running with a new show. Some argue that Abebe was training to run bare foot, and it was all planned. However, records show that Abebe’s decision to run bare foot was made at a last minute due to the inconvenience of the shoe and the swelling of his foot.
The Marathon in the Rome Olympic was the most watched tournament as many favorite athletes were participants. Sergey Popov of Russia (who was the record holder), Abdesselem Rhadi of Morroco (who won the international race the same year) and Barry Maggee of New Zealand were among the favorites to win the race. No body have heard of a young athlete from Ethiopia, who runs bare foot at the time. It was only his coach Onni who knew that Abebe was a threat and that he might easily win.
By the 15 kilometers, Abebe joined the leading group in the race. The competition came down to four athletes including Arthur Kelly of Britain. When only one kilometer is left, Abebe made his final move and drew away. He finished the race with a new record 2 hours 15 minutes and 16.25 seconds. He improved the previous record that was set in Helsinki in 1952 by 8 minutes. Later, his coach Onni commented to journalists that he is not surprised by Abebe’s win at all. ‘He has no fear of his rivals. He has a strong willpower and dedication. There is none like Abebe I had seen’ he said.
After four years, in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first in Asia, Abebe was a man to watch. The Tokyo Olympics was spectacular for its preparation and decoration, and was a live event in many countries. Japanese also had a special regard for a marathon, and they consider it as a real test of a man. Abebe not only won the race, this time with a shoe, but also broke his own record. He became the first athlete to defend a title/to have consecutive win in a marathon in the Olympics. His starship was on the rise, and was named as one of the best athletes on the planate by many media outlets. In a press conference after wards, Abebe says he already has his eyes on the next Olympics in Mexico City. He said he would win the marathon for the third time.
However, a leg injury he suffered during training did not allow him to win in Mexico City. He couldn’t finish the course and left the competition early.
In 1969, Abebe had a tragic car accident. He was sent to England for a treatment. After eight months, to the grief of many Ethiopians, Abebe returned home in a wheelchair. It was what happened next that proved Abebe’s spirit and will power to never give up. He entered a paraplegic sport competition in England and finished seven. Abebe was quoted as saying that he would accept his accident by grace as he accepted his wins at the Olympics the same.
In 1972, Abebe was invited to the Munich Olympic as a guest of honor. He was received by standing ovation as he entered the stadium in a wheelchair.
Ababe Bikia died in October 25, 1973 at the age of only 41. The cause of his death is stated as cerebral hemorrhage related to his accident.
- Gold Medal and Record Holder, Rome Olympics Marathon, 1960
- Order of the Star of Ethiopia from Emporer Haile Selassie
- Gold Medal and defending champion, Tokyo Olympic Marathon 1964
Abebe married Yewebdar Woldegiorgis on March 16, 1960. The marriage was arranged by his mother. They remained married for the rest of his life and have children together.