You might have heard about Abebe Bikila, the marathon runner who ran Olympic races barefoot.
However, there’s way more to the late athlete than meets the eye. He overcame injuries, war, and harsh terrains to run and win.
So, who is Abebe Bikila, and what’s his legacy? Let’s find out!
Who Is Abebe Bikila?
Abebe Bikila was a 5’9” Ethiopian runner with a military background from his years of serving with the Imperial Guard during World War II.
In 1932, Bikila was born in a small village to a shepherd father. He spent his early years in the mountains. This high altitude and rough tracks prepared him for competing in various terrains throughout his career.
Later on, he became the very first black African athlete to score a gold medal at the Olympics, basically paving the road for more athletes to come. Not only that, but he also ended up breaking consecutive world records.
After his brilliant triumph, the Olympic games started seeing more and more fierce competition from Africa.
When Did Bikila Become a Professional Runner?
Although he had a runner’s body, Abebe Bikila didn’t take up racing until 1956. Instead, he used to play an Ethiopian version of field hockey called gena as a child.
Bikila’s ability as a runner was first noticed by his coach, Onni Niskanen, in the Imperial Guard. After all, he was running almost 12 miles back and forth daily during his service time!
It wasn’t even an easy run. He had to sprint the distance barefoot on rocky grounds.
By then, Niskanen had decided that the 24-year-old runner was particularly talented. Both of them started their preparation for an Ethiopian Armed Forces marathon to be held in Addis Ababa the following year.
Although he came in second, his performance was impressive enough that he was running yet another marathon only one month later. Bikila won this one and started gathering momentum.
In fact, his timing (2:21:23) for the second race bested Emil Zátopek’s marathon record at the time.
However, Niskanen had even higher hopes for Bikila. He knew right then and there that he was dealing with an up-and-coming Olympic sensation.
Surely enough, Bikila moved on to compete at the Olympic games, and the Awards started rolling in from there on.
What Are Bikila’s Professional Highlights and Awards?
All in all, Abebe Bikila ran 15 marathons throughout his career. Out of those, he won 12 in total. These odds are really significant when you think about it!
Let’s take a closer look at the highlights of his career:
Came First Place in the 1960 Rome Olympic Marathon
After winning his second marathon in Addis Ababa, Bikila signed up for the 1960 Rome Olympics.
To protect the runners from the high temperatures, the race was held at night, starting from the Capitoline Hill and finishing at the Arch of Constantine.
Yet, that wasn’t even the most eye-catching part of the event.
Bikila didn’t exactly fall in love with his brand new running shoes, and he felt that his feet would blister in them. So, he decided to roll back into his racing habits and run barefoot.
At the time, it was quite an unusual thing to do, and soon all eyes were following Abebe Bikila, who ended up in first place at 2:15:16.2.
To this day, his record stands for the fastest barefoot marathon run!
Sadly, he only ever ran barefoot again once in the 1961 Athens Classical Marathon.
Scored Gold at 1964 Tokyo Olympic Marathon
Four years later, Abebe Bikila was getting ready for his second Olympic run. This time around, he wasn’t barefoot. Instead, he sported a running shoe by Puma.
At a timing of 2:12:11.2, he had crossed the finish line and scored himself a gold back-to-back by beating his own record at Rome.
This golden medal came just in time after Bikila’s disheartening loss in the 1963 Boston Marathon.
His Olympic triumph is even more astonishing when you realize that he had an appendectomy only forty days before the run itself.
What a resilient spirit!
Ran the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Marathon
After his buzzing success in the Tokyo Olympic games, Bikila ran three more races and managed to win them all, albeit with some injuries.
When the time came for his third Olympics, he was in the recovery period from a previous stress fracture.
Yet, he decided to push forward and enter the race. He was actually progressing according to his usual strategy initially.
Unfortunately, he had to quit the race after only ten miles when the pain became too much to handle.
While it was already sad to see such a gifted runner drop from a marathon, it gets even sadder when you realize that this would be Abebe Bikila’s last run.
Who is Abebe Bikila And Why Did Abebe Bikila Stop Running?
In 1969, Abebe Bikila had a serious car crash that left him paralyzed and never to walk again.
His car at the time happened to be a white Volkswagen.
This was the very same one that emperor Haile Selassie had given him after his captivating performance in the Rome Olympics.
However, even this didn’t stop Bikila from holding on to his competitive spirit and being a professional athlete.
He moved on to the Stoke Mandeville Games and Paralympics, where he focused on dog sledding and archery events.
Only four years after the unfortunate accident, Bikila suffered from a fatal complication. A cerebral hemorrhage ended up taking his life.
The star runner died at the age of 41, and he was buried in Addis Ababa after a dignified funeral.
So, who is Abebe Bikila?
Sure, Bikila is an Olympic champion, but he’s even more than that.
He’s one of the most resilient runners the Olympics has ever seen, from competing after surgeries to braving his way through paralysis.
Abebe Bikila may have passed away, but his determination and spirit are still inspiring athletes all over the world!