Abebe Bikila: The First of the Great African Long-Distance Runners

Abebe Bikila winning gold in the marathon in Rome in 1960.
Abebe Bikila winning gold in the marathon in Rome in 1960.

He ran into the night along the Appian Way, torches held by Italian soldiers lighting the way, the only sound the onlookers would notice is the pidder padder of his barefeet on the road.

A complete unknown, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, won the marathon at the Rome Olympics in 1960. He was a member of the Imperial Bodyguard in Ethiopia, a country where people got around by running, commonly without shoes. When Bikila arrived in Rome, he tried on various pairs of shoes, but he could not find a pair that did not hurt and cause blisters.

Bikila and his fellow runner Abebe Wakjira decided to run barefoot. This was a decision that embarrassed them. They felt people were laughing at the poor Ethiopians who could not afford shoes, so they stayed hidden in their tent until the marathon began.

But Bikila’s triumph had a tremendous ripple effect over the decades. Not only was Bikila a victory for Ethiopia, he was a symbol of pride and achievement for all of Africa. Bikila became the role model so important to sparking the imagination of other would-be long-distance runners in impoverished Africa.

Wrote David Maraniss in his book Rome 1960, “as the first black African to win a gold medal, Abebe Bikila paved the way for what would become a long and illustrious line of East African distance runners. Many were from Ethiopia but even more hailed from Kenya, led by the brilliant Kipchoge Keino, who won the metric mile at Mexico City, outpacing the American Jim Ryun, and took home the steeplechase gold four years later in Munich.”

Here we are, decades later, at the recent IAAF Track and Field Championships in Beijing, it was Kenya that topped the medal tables, with Ethiopia in the fifth rank.

Maraniss cited a poem published in The Ethiopian Herald on the death of Bikila.

He made our flag to fly
Right above
Dead and gone Mussolini
Then and then
Abebe led, Mamo followed
Ethiopia led, Kenya followed

Here is the video of Bikila’s triumph in Rome.