Abebe Bikila

Abebe Bikila

Abebe Bikila (August 7, 1932 – October 25, 1973) was a two-time Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia. A stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honor. [ http://www.databaseolympics.com/players/playerpage.htm?ilkid=BIKILABE01 DatabaseOlympics profile ]


1932 – 1959

Abebe Bikila was born on August 7, 1932, the day of the Los Angeles Olympic Marathon, in the village of Jato, located 9 kilometers outside the town of Mendida, Ethiopia. His father was a shepherd. Abebe decided to join the Imperial Bodyguard to support his family, and walked to Addis Ababa where he started as a private.

Onni Niskanen, a Finn, was hired by the Ethiopian government to train potential athletes. He soon spotted Bikila.

1960 Summer Olympics

Bikila was added to the Ethiopian Olympic team only at the last moment, as the plane to Rome was about to leave, as a replacement for Wami Biratu, who had broken his ankle in a soccer match.Major Onni Niskanen entered Bikila and Mamo Wolde in the marathon.

Adidas, the shoe sponsor at the 1960 Summer Olympics, had few shoes left when Bikila went to try out shoes and he ended up with a pair that didn’t fit comfortably, so he couldn't use them. A couple of hours before the race the decision was taken by Abebe to run barefoot, the way he'd trained for the race. Bikila was warned by Niskanen about his main rivals, one of whom was Rhadi Ben Abdesselam from Morocco, who was supposed to wear number 26. For unknown reasons, Rhadi did not acquire his black marathon bib before the race, and instead was wearing his regularly assigned track and field bib number 185. The late afternoon race had its start point and finish at the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum. At the start of the race the Australian Ron Clarke made a comment to Bikila about running barefoot.

During the race Bikila passed numerous runners, looking for the runner with number 26. By about 20 km, Bikila and the runner with number 185 had created a gap from the rest of the pack. Bikila kept looking forward to find the runner with number 26, who unbeknownst to Bikila was running right beside him. They stayed together until the last 500 m, when Abebe sprinted to the finish line. Bikila won in a record time of 2:15:16.2, becoming the first African to win an Olympic gold medal. He finished 26 seconds ahead of Rhadi.

After the race, when Bikila was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism."

Niskanen later speculated that if Rhadi hadn’t competed in the 10,000 m race several days before, the race might have been closer.

1960 - 1964

Bikila returned to Ethiopia as a hero. The saying quickly swept the country that "it took a million Italians to invade Ethiopia but only one Ethiopian soldier to conquer Rome." Emperor Haile Selassie promoted him to the rank of corporal and awarded him the Star of Ethiopia medal.Shortly after the Olympics General Mengistu Neway plotted a coup and Bikila, who didn’t understand politics, was forced to take part. Bikila refused to kill dignitaries and when the coup attempt failed all involved were sentenced to death by hanging. Bikila was pardoned by the Emperor after lobbying in his favor by numerous people.

In 1961 Bikila ran marathons in Greece, Japan, and the City of Kosice in Czechoslovakia, all of which he won. Between October 1961 and April 1963 he did not compete in any international marathon. Bikila entered the 1963 Boston Marathon and finished in just 5th place -- the only time in his career that he finished a marathon and did not win. [The Olympic Marathon by Martin and Gynn, ISBN 0880119691] He returned to Ethiopia and he didn’t compete in another marathon until the one in Addis Ababa in 1964. He won this race, taking 2:23:14 to complete the course.

40 days prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, during a training run near Addis, Abebe Bikila started to feel pain. Unaware of the cause of the pain, he attempted to overcome this pain but collapsed. He was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. He was operated on and shortly thereafter - even during his recovery period - he started jogging in the hospital courtyard at night.

1964 Summer Olympics

Abebe Bikila traveled to Tokyo but was not expected to compete. He did enter the marathon, this time wearing Asics shoes. He used the same strategy as in 1960: to stay with the leaders until the 20 kilometer point, then slowly increase his pace. After 15 km he only had company from Ron Clarke of Australia and Jim Hogan of Ireland. Shortly before 20 km only Hogan was in contention and by 30 km, Bikila was 40 seconds in front of Hogan and two minutes in front of Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan in third place. He entered the Olympic stadium alone to the cheers of 70,000 spectators. He finished the marathon in a new world record time of 2:12:11:2, 4 minutes, 8 seconds in front of the silver medalist Basil Heatley of Great Britain. Kokichi Tsuburaya was third. He was the first athlete in history to win the Olympic marathon twice. After finishing he astonished the crowd: not appearing exhausted, he started a routine of stretching exercises. He later stated that he could have run another 10 kilometers.

1964 - 1968

Bikila returned to Ethiopia to a hero's welcome once again. He was again promoted by the Emperor, and he received his own car, a white Volkswagen Beetle.

1968 Olympics

Once again Bikila and Mamo Wolde were entered in the marathon (symbolically, Bikila was issued bib number 1 for this race). This time however Bikila had to leave the race after approximately 17 km, due to an injury in his right knee. He watched his friend and long time running partner Mamo Wolde win. Mamo Wolde later stated that had Bikila not been injured, he would surely have won. [Barefoot Runner by Rambali, ISBN 1852429046]

1969 - 1973

In 1969, during civil unrest in Addis, Bikila was driving his Volkswagen Beetle when he had to swerve to avoid a group of protesting students. He lost control of his car and it landed in a ditch, trapping him. He was freed out of the car but the accident left him quadriplegic. He was operated on at the Stoke Mandeville hospital in England and his condition improved to paraplegic. Niskanen convinced him to compete in paraplegic archery competitions and Abebe joked that he would win the next Olympic marathon in a wheelchair.

Abebe was invited as a special guest to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich where he witnessed his countryman Mamo Wolde fail to match Bikila's twin marathon victories; Wolde finished third behind American Frank Shorter. After Shorter received his medal he went to Bikila to shake his hand.

On the 23 October 1973, Abebe Bikila died in Addis Ababa at the age of 41 from a cerebral hemorrhage, a complication related to the accident of four years earlier. He left behind his wife and four children. His funeral in Addis Ababa was attended by 75,000 and Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia proclaimed a national day of mourning for Ethiopia’s national hero.

A stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honor. In August 2005, with the assistance of [http://www.aglimmerofhope.org A Glimmer of Hope Foundation] and its supporters Isabel and Dave Welland, an Oromo school named Yaya Abebe Bikila Primary Village School was erected in Bikila's honor by the local Mendida community. The school sits a few hundred meters from the remains of the village of Jato, Ethiopia.


* "I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism" [ [http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1215330922601&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull "I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism" Abebe Bikila] ]
*"Men of success meet with tragedy. It was the will of God that I won the Olympics, and it was the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily." [Added by L. Fufa, July, 2008 from A. Bikila's Biography:http://www.answers.com/topic/abebe-bikila]


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