The Sneaker Wars Part 3: Abebe Bikila, Onitsuka vs Puma

Kihachiro Onitsuka with Abebe Bikila at that fateful meeting.
Kihachiro Onitsuka with Abebe Bikila at that fateful meeting.

After the Rome Olympics in 1960, there was probably no athlete more well known than Abebe Bikila, the barefoot marathon champion.

So when Bikila arrived in Japan in 1961 for the Mainichi Marathon in Osaka, he was treated like a rock star. Everyone wanted to take a picture of him. Everyone wanted to meet him. In particular, a businessman named Kihachiro Onitsuka, who ran a shoe company, wanted to meet Bikila, and more than anything, hold his feet in his hands.

Bikila’s coach, Onni Niskanen, was concerned as the roads in Osaka were in parts made of gravel and other parts poorly conditioned tarmac. He explained that “I didn’t dare take the risk of bruised feet. Wami (Biratu) had to run barefoot as he had never run with shoes on.”

So as fate has it, the desire of one met the needs of another, thanks to the introduction of Kohei Murakuso, 5 and 10 thousand runner in the Berlin Olympics, Kihachiro Onitsuka was brought to the room of Abebe Bikila. As related in the book, Bikila – Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian, by Tim Judah, Onitsuka really tried to impress Bikila with the possibility of injury, as well as the benefit of a shoe that grips the road. Here is how Onitsuka remembers the conversation:

Onitsuka: I am here to support you and supply you with shoes. I hope you will win this race with my shoes!
Bikila: I have always run barefoot and I have won many times. I don’t need shoes.
Onitsuka: The roads in Japan are very rough and that’s why you should wear shoes.
Bikila: The roads may be rough but I don’t need shoes.
Onitsuka: Your bare feet are excellent, they are like cat’s paws. But still, shoes could improve your records.

Despite Bikila’s resistance, Niskanen weighed in with the view that shoes might be a good idea on this terrain, and Bikila gave in to the word of his coach. Bikila did indeed win the marathon fairly handily, and it was reported that Bikila did admit that the shoes “gave me more grip and better tracking”. An overjoyed Onitsuka would go on to turn his company into a sporting wear powerhouse named Asics.

Three years later, Bikila would achieve legendary status by winning the marathon in his second straight Olympics, wearing running shoes. But they weren’t Onitsuka shoes. They were Pumas.

An Onitsuka Tiger Store in Roppongi.
An Onitsuka Tiger Store in Roppongi.