Bicycles – One of the Enduring Memories of the 1964 Olympics Part 2: Abebe Bikila and an Injury Waiting to Happen

French fencers Jean-Claude Magnan and Cathérine Rousselet-Ceretti on bicycles_Bi to Chikara
French fencers Jean-Claude Magnan and Cathérine Rousselet-Ceretti on bicycles, from the book Bi to Chikara

The bicycles of the Olympic Village were the invaluable commodity of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Olympians scrambled to find or keep a bicycle so that they were ensured of easy transport around the vast grounds of the Village.

But bicycles, even in the hands of the best athletes in the world, were sometimes considered an accident waiting to happen.

American gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto told me of one night in an area that was so dark, he ended up “running (my bicycle) into a three-foot pond”. Gold medalist distance runner, Bob Schul, explained in his autobiography, In the Long Run, that the bicycles were not exactly one size fit all, which could be dangerous to the big athletes.

The bikes didn’t last long, however, as the rate of breakdowns was very high. On one occasion we witnessed a comical sight involving just such a “breakdown!” A Russian weight lifter, who weighed close to 300 pounds, attempted to ride a bike. To top it off he placed his friend on this shoulders. Almost immediately the bike broke in two pieces with this huge man and his friend tangled among the works. Fortunately no one was hurt, but this was one bicycle that would not be ridden again during the Olympiad.

Dawn Fraser on a bicycle_The Olympic CEntury XVIII Olympiad
Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser on a bicycle, from the book The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad

According to an October 19, 1964 UPI report, US swimmers were banned from using the bicycles for fear of injury.

None of the athletes cycling about the Olympic Village – on the more than 700 available bicycles – are U.S. swimmers. Bicycle riding, the most popular form of transportation among Olympic sportsmen and women, is strictly forbidden to American swimmers – at least until after they have competed in the games. The no bicycling edict came from the team’s swimming coaches, who claim that bicycling tightens up a swimmer’s muscles instead of relaxing them for competition.

I doubt the US swimmers heeded that ban. But marathon legend, Abebe Akila, may have wished his coach banned him from bicycles. In a biography about Bikila, the barefoot champion of the 1960 Rome Olympics, who went on to repeat his golden performance at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, would get around on the bicycles like everyone else. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a very experienced cyclist. Here’s how Tim Judah explained, in his book, Bikila – Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian, how a bicycle caused the marathoner more grief than he needed.

Abebe Bikila on a bicycle_Bi to Chikara
Marathoner Abebe Bikila on a bicycle, from the book Bi to Chikara

Bikila, not used to riding one, tried one out and the experience almost ended in disaster. On the second day Bikila came in with a bandaged hand. He had fallen while bicycling. He had gone to the hospital where he had been spotted by some journalists. Terrified, Bikila had not dared ask the hospital to take care of his knee, which was more seriously hurt, and so he had hidden the injury until he could get Niskanen (his coach) to look at it.

In the meantime, vastly exaggerated reports of Bikila’s condition were flashed around the world, prompting a telegram from Addis Ababa, expressing concern, Niskanen wrote. “They had made a mountain out of a molehill. There was no more cycling for Abebe. It was bad enough getting over his appendix operation.” In the days that followed there was no let up in the pressure. Bikila was a world sporting celebrity and Niskanen had to fight hard to give him space.