It’s nestled in a nook in the sidewalk in Tobitakyu, Chofu, a town in Western Tokyo – a dove with massive wings perched on a pillar.
The dove generally signifies the peaceful intentions of the Olympic Games, but this dove in particular signifies the turning point of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Marathon competition. Today, the statue is hidden and nondescript, a footnote for a busy suburban area where there’s a busy road, a major stadium (Ajinomoto Stadium, home of J League’s FC Tokyo soccer team) as well as a major arena (Musashino Forest Sports Plaza where Olympic and Paralympic events will be held) nearby.
But on October 21, 1964, it was a quiet residential area that drew the attention of the world. Nearly 55 years before, Abebe Bikila, the barefoot champion from Ethiopia arrived at the point near that dove statue, made the turn around a very large cone that read “ori-kaeshi-ten,” (or turning point) and headed back into central Tokyo continuing to build a lead so insurmountable that he ended up breaking the world record and winning gold handily for the second Olympics in a row.
Unlike the legendary marathon of the ancient Olympic Games, as well as at the 2004 Athens Games, when the marathon was a point-to-point race from a town called Marathon to Athens, most other Summer Olympics have designed marathon routes where the start and finish are the same point – at the main stadium. This was the case in 1964, and the organizers chose a route of straightforward simplicity – out of the National Stadium in Yoyogi and then due West, through Shinjuku 3-chome and onto the Koshu-kaido (Koshu Highway).
The marathon was very popular. NHK rolled out the latest technology with a mobile relay van complete with vibration-proof cameras, helicopters with cameras, as well as UHF antennas sprinkled throughout the course which enabled for the first time in history the live broadcast of the entire marathon race, in color, to millions, according to the final report issued by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. For approximately 1,200,000 people who lined the route, twice the size of any previous marathon in Japan, watching the athletes run by you trumped the latest in broadcast technology.
The marathon was an event for the people, who did not need a ticket to line the road from early in the morning to settle in to catch a glimpse of their heroes, Kokichi Tsuburaya, Kenji Kimihara and Toru Terasawa, as well as one of the most famous athletes of that time – Abebe Bikila. The turning point at Tobitakyu is celebrated as the turning point of the marathon, in an Olympics that was a turning point for Japan.
Running in Vibram FiveFingers Bikila EVO Shoes is like running barefoot. And running barefoot can, it is said, return you to a better, injury-free way of running.
That’s the whole point of the Vibram experience – to reproduce what it is like to walk or run barefoot. And who better to name a running shoe that replicates the barefoot experience than Abebe Bikila, the famed two-time gold medalist who famously came out of nowhere to win the 1960 Rome Olympics marathon…sans socks and shoes.
The shoe manufacturer, Vibram, has marketed shoes called the Vibram Bikila, trademarking the name of the famous Ethiopian athlete in 2010. In February, 2015, Teferi Bikila, the son of Abebe, filed a lawsuit against Vibram to cease using the Bikila name as the family never granted permission.
Unfortunately for the Bikilas, there is apparently a time limit on respect. A judge of the U. S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington dismissed the lawsuit in November, 2016, citing that the Bikila’s were aware of the Bikila shoe brand in 2011 but did not act until 2015, and thus “it would have been unfair to Vibram to allow the lawsuit to go forward after such a delay, when Vibram had been investing in and marketing the products for years.”
“The Bikilas unreasonably delayed in seeking to enforce their rights, and this unreasonable delay prejudiced Vibram,” wrote Judge Ronald Leighton.
It’s days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Olympic fever in Tokyo is rising. Athletes from all over the world were arriving days if not weeks in advance, filing off of planes and ships and filling the Olympic villages in Yoyogi, Enoshima and Lake Sagami.
For most Japanese, the Olympic villages were pop-up mini United Nations, places of such diversity to shock the mono-culture of Japan. They were drawn to the villages with the hopes of seeing the wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes of the world population, to shake hands with the foreigners, take pictures with them, and of course, get their autographs.
Certainly, to get the autograph of swimming siren Kiki Caron from France, or the amazing barefoot runner from Ethiopia Abebe Bikila, or the 218 cm giant center on the USSR basketball team, Janis Krumins would be a coup. But apparently, the Japanese would rush up to anyone who looked like a foreigner and ask for their autograph.
Hayes Jones was not just anyone – he was the 110-meter hurdles gold medalist. But when he wrote down his name “Hayes,” he would cause a ruckus beyond his expectation:
When I was going into town after the winning the gold in Tokyo, I was leaving the village to see my wife, and these Japanese kids were outside with the autograph pads and they saw me call me out, and this kid put my pen and paper in front of me. I started signing my sign, “Hayes”. …they started shouting “Bob Hayes” is here. I didn’t have the nerve to write “Hayes Jones”.
The “fanaticism” of the Japanese to get autographs was apparently wearing thin on athletes and officials alike, even before the Olympics opened, so much so that the press had words of caution for their readers. As you can read in the Yomiuri article of October 5, 1964 below, athletes were “outraged,” at risk of “writer’s cramp”! To be honest, it’s hard to tell whether the article was preaching, or teasing….
Some athletes have become so outraged that whenever they see these “fanatics” they raise their voices, yelling them to go away.
The great majority of the determined pack of autograph hounds consist of people assigned to the village. These are mostly defense force servicemen, interpreters and assorted workers who often show utter disregard for the time, place or mood of athletes in asking for autographs.
If this trend remains unchecked, many athletes will end up having writer’s cramp before they leave for home.
When József Sütő lined up for the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Hungarian didn’t know any of the other 67 competitors in the race, except for the then-world record holder, American Buddy Edelen, and the reigning Olympic champion from Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila.
When Sütő hit the halfway point in the marathon, Bikila was indeed firmly in the lead. Slightly behind him was Jim Hogan of Ireland. Ron Clarke of Australia was third, but pressing hard on Clarke were Sütő, Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan, and Demissie Wolde of Ethiopia.
“Mr. Tsuburaya was in this group, but I did not know at the time who he was,” Sütő explained in an interview with me. “I saw of course that he is Japanese but I did not know more.”
And yet, it was that race that established a life-long tie between those two runners, who never met except in that single competition on October 21, 1964. Fifty years later, Sütő would return to Japan and pay respects to the Japanese marathoner who won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and then subsequently and sadly took his own life four years later.
At this own expense, Sütő flew out to Japan to attend the 32nd Tsuburaya Memorial Meet, an annual series of running events held in the city of Sukagawa, Fukushima, the hometown of Kokichi Tsuburaya. This was October, 2014, which meant that he would be running in the memorial only two days before the 50th anniversary of the marathon of the Tokyo Olympics.
As explained in this article, Sütő ran in the 5k race, and at the age of 78, ran it in a respectable 27 minutes and 8 seconds. More importantly, he ran it in the race with teenage boys, aged 13 to 15. Sütő understands symbolism, the importance of being a role model, which is why he ran with the boys. When Sütő was growing up in Hungary, his hero was Sándor Iharos, one of the best distance runners in the world in the mid-1950s, a world record holder in the 1500-, 2,000- and 5,000-meter distances.
But Sütő also understands how he represents history, and his linkage to Japan and the 1964 Olympics, one of the defining moments of its history in the 20th century, as well as to the marathon itself. He had arrived in Tokyo on October 18th and was immediately whisked north to Sukagawa. He ran the race on October 19th. On October 20th, he attended a tour of the museum dedicated to the memory of Kokichi Tsuburaya, and then returned to Tokyo for a meeting with representatives of Japan’s National Olympic Committee on October 21st.
The meeting began at 3pm, and exactly 17 minutes into the meeting, Sütő interrupted the conversation by saying “Gentlemen, 50 years ago on this date and at this moment I was taking the turn into the Olympic stadium….and I’ll cross the finish line in a moment!”
I’ve only had the opportunity to exchange emails through an intermediary/translator named Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia, who kindly offered to assist me in communicating with Sütő . Through Rajzó-Kontor’s help, as well as the brilliant articles she wrote on Sütő’s visit to Japan in 2014, I can see that Sütő appreciates the enormity of Japan’s moment in 1964, and as he learned after leaving the Tokyo Olympics, the physical and mental trials Tsuburaya endured after the Tokyo Games. Sütő never met Tsuburaya, but he knows him, and likely wishes he could embrace him.
After completing his race at the Tsuburaya Memorial Meet that beautiful October day, he revealed his thoughts to reporters, as explained by Rajzó-Kontor:
Sütő told the local television viewers the same thing he had said in the cemetery the day before; that he had been thinking of Tsuburaya and thanking him as he ran. Sütő said he believed he would have run the distance “hand in hand” with Tsuburaya, were he still alive.
NOTE: Many, many thanks to Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia for the time she took to translate my questions from English to Hungarian, personally meet with József Sütő, and then translate his responses from Hungarian back to English.
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.
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.
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.
Abebe Bikila strolled into the National Stadium like he owned it. And he did. The lithe Ethiopian, a member of the Imperial Bodyguard of his nation, was about to meet expectations at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – to become the first person to win marathons in two consecutive Olympics.
The first time Bikila did so, he was an unknown, and made headlines by running barefoot on the roads of Rome in 1960 to win marathon gold. When he crossed the finish line in Tokyo, amazingly over 4 minutes earlier than the second place finisher, the audience marveled at how fresh Bikila was – so fresh that he did calisthenics and jogged in place as if he were readying for the start of a marathon.
In other words, the actual competition in the marathon was for second. And in the race for second, Japan was ready to explode in celebration.
As explained in this detailed article, at the 10K mark of the 42K race, Clarke was setting a pretty fast pace at 30:14, with Jim Hogan of Ireland and Bikila following. Around the 20k mark, Bikila took the lead and never looked back. The race for 2nd was on, with Clarke and Hogan about 5 seconds behind Bikila, and a second pack including Wolde, Tsuburaya, Jozsef Suto of Hungary and Antonio Ambu of Italy.
With about 7 kilometers to go, Bikila, Hogan, Tsuburaya and Suto were in the lead, with Heatley rising to fifth. Amazingly, Hogan dropped out of the marathon despite being in position for a silver medal, leaving the Japanese from the self defense forces, Tsuburaya in second. Heatley and Kilby were coming on, passing Suto with only 2 kilometers to go.
Heatley was advancing and could envision a bronze-medal finish, but didn’t think he could pass Tsuburaya. “I didn’t expect to catch him,” Heatley recalls, “but he was a target.”
Bikila entered the National Stadium triumphantly, winning with an ease that both shocked and surprised the crowd. But the crowd went wild a few minutes later when Tsuburaya entered the stadium. At their home Olympics, Japan had medaled in wrestling, judo, boxing, weightlifting, gymnastics and swimming among others, but not in track and field. Tsuburaya was about to change that, in front of the biggest crowd possible.
And yet, soon after Tusburaya entered the stadium, so too did Heatley, only about 10 meters behind. Just before the final curve of the stadium’s cinder track, Heatley turned on the jets and sprinted by Tsuburaya. For a 2nd place battle that took over 2 hours and 16 minutes, Tsuburaya lost his chance for silver by four seconds.
Writer, Robert Whiting, was watching this match on the television, confident that Tsuburaya would make Japan proud with a silver medal only to see that expectation burst before the eyes of an entire nation, as he explained in this article.
The cheering for Tsuburaya was building to a crescendo when suddenly Great Britain’s Basil Heatley came into view and proceeded to put on one of Olympic track and field’s great all-time spurts. He steadily closed the gap in the last 100 meters, passing Tsuburaya shortly before the wire, turning the wild cheering in the coffee shop, and in the stadium, and no doubt in the rest of Japan, into one huge collective groan.
Bob Schul, who three days earlier, became the first American to win gold in the 5,000 meter race, watched the end of the marathon with some dismay.
Abebe entered the stadium to great applause. He finished and went into the infield and started doing exercises. Finally the second guy, Tsuburaya came, and the crowd roared. But so did Heathley of England. Sharon asked if Tsuburaya could hold on to 2nd place. I said I didn’t think so. Heatley caught him about 150 meters before the finish. And the crowd became very quiet. The Japanese guy was going to get third. And when he did finish, the stadium did erupt. And that was the only medal they won in track and field.
When Kokichi Tsuburaya was a boy in elementary school, he competed in an event common throughout Japan – a sports day, when children compete against each other in a variety of activities, like foot races. After one such race, Koshichi Tsuburaya, the young runner’s father, chewed him out for looking behind him during the race. “Why are you looking back during the race. Looking back is a bad thing. If you believe in yourself, you don’t need to do so.”
Many years later, with over 70,000 people screaming in the showcase event of the Olympics, people were yelling, “Tsuburaya, a runner is behind you! Look back! Look back! He’s close!” Was Tsuburaya recalling that childhood scolding from his father? Would it have made a difference if he did?
While Tsuburaya’s very public loss of the silver medal must have been the source of pain, not only for Tsuburaya, but also of the nation. But in the end, there were no hard feelings. After all, Tsuburaya won Japan’s only medal in Athletics, a bronze in the marathon, an achievement beyond the nation’s initial expectations. Writer Hitomi Yamaguchi wrote of this pain and pride in a 1964 article.
Tsuburaya tried so very hard. And his efforts resulted in the raising of the Japanese flag in the National Stadium. My chest hurt. I applauded so much I didn’t take any notes. Since the start of the Olympic Games, our national flag had not risen once in the National Stadium. At this last event, we were about to have a record of no medals in track and field. Kon Ishikawa’s film cameras were rolling, and newspaper reporters were watching. People were waiting and hoping. So when Tsubaraya crossed the finish line, we felt so fortunate! When I saw the Japanese flag raised freely into the air, it felt fantastic. Tsuburaya, thank you.
You can watch the dramatic second-place finish to the Tokyo Olympics marathon at the 5:38 mark of this video:
Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Marija Linartaite, for finding and translating the last quote.
It was 1952, at the Helsinki Olympics, there was no brighter star than Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. But sharing a part of the shade under the towering figure of Zatopek was a Brit named Frank Sando. Somewhere early in the 10,000-meter race (at the end of the first or third lap depending on which report you read), Sando was spiked by a trailing runner and lost his left shoe. Sando kept running.
In fact, Sando ran nearly the entire 29-minute race, with bare left foot. And he incredibly came in fifth, running steadily in one of the more grueling of Olympic competitions, breaking the British record and coming within 3.6 seconds of a bronze medal.
It was 1960 when a man from Ethiopia topped that feat (as it were). Abebe Bikila became the first black African to win a gold medal, winning the marathon in Olympic record time….shoeless.
There have been many other cases of runners losing a shoe in a race, but usually the loss of the shoe impacts the performance of the runner negatively. When someone prepares hundreds of hours for a particular running competition, it is with the understanding that the shoes will hold up. There is no training without shoes. And when an athlete is suddenly without a shoe, it will be painful. The soft skin of the bottom of the foot will peel away. The tendons and muscles that support the ankles and calfs and hamstrings will feel the effects of a suddenly altered running style, one instinctively designed to avoid pain.
But there are also people who, today, run barefoot regularly, who believe that un-shod approach is the natural way to ambulate, and better for a body that did not evolve over the millenia with Nike’s or Adidas shoes on foot. (See Barefoot Runners Society.) Barefoot runners not only enjoy barefoot running, they believe it improves their overall foot and leg condition and diminishes arthritic pain.
May strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the foot and allow one to develop a more natural gait.
By removing the heel lift in most shoes, it will help stretch and strengthen the Achilles tendon and calf muscle which may reduce injuries, such as calf strains or Achilles tendinitis.
Runners will learn to land on the forefoot rather than the heel. The heel strike during running was developed due to the excessive padding of running shoes, but research shows this isn’t the most effective natural running stride. Landing on the heel causes unnecessary braking on every stride. The most efficient runners land on the mid-foot and keep their strides smooth and fluid. Landing on the forefoot also allows your arches to act as natural shock absorbers.
It may improve balance and proprioception. Going barefoot activates the smaller muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and hips that are responsible for better balance and coordination.
Running barefoot helps one improve balance, but it also helps them stay grounded and connected with your environment. A person can learn to spread their toes and expand the foot while it becomes a more solid and connected base that supports all movements.
And for the competitor, there is a potential benefit regarding increased speed, perhaps one of the more important factors for a competitive runner. According to this article in Runner’s World, research has shown that the simple matter of reducing the weight your feet and legs have to carry can have a significant impact on your running speed. This article quotes long-distance runner, Bruce Tulloh, who cites the research of Dr Griffith Pugh. Dr Pugh’s huge claim to fame was to be the doctor to the team that first climbed Mt Everest.
“Dr. Pugh had me run repetition miles, to compare the effect of bare feet, shoes, and shoes with added weight. He collected breath samples. It showed a straight-line relationship between weight of shoes and oxygen cost. At sub-5:00 mile pace, the gain in efficiency with bare feet is 1 percent, which means a 100m advantage in a 10,000m. In actual racing, I found another advantage is that you can accelerate more quickly,” Tulloh said.
But if you’re not dealing with pain in your feet or legs, and you have never trained in barefoot, there is no real great advantage to start doing so. When you first run barefoot, as most of us can clearly imagine, it will hurt. The bottom of your feet will be chocked by the impact, particularly the moment you step on a pebble, a thorn, or a piece of glass. In addition to punctures and lacerations, the chance of achilles tendonitis, calf strain and plantar fasciitis are high. Then there’s the frostbite if you run in the cold….
My intent is not to pull your leg, or put my foot down on the merits of running unshod. If you have itchy feet and yearn to feel the dirt and grass as it caresses and cushions your overly protected puppies, then perhaps it’s time to stop dragging your feet. Go ahead, dig in your heels and put your best foot forward.
As he crossed the finish line, he made two fists, raised his arms and crossed them, forming an “X”. Feyisa Lilesa was resolute, sending a clear message of defiance to the Ethiopian government, one of the more oppressive regimes in Africa.
“I decided three months before Rio if I win, and get a good result, I knew the media would be watching, the world would finally see and hear the cry of my people,” Lilesa said (to the New York Times), speaking through an interpreter in a measured, calm but defiant tone. “People who are being displaced from their land, people who are being killed for asking for their basic rights, I’m very happy to stand in front of you as their voice,” he said.
He won the silver medal in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but he also realized that with his very visible protest, he would not be able to go home. According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands have been arrested, and hundreds have been killed in the past year. Lilesa naturally believes a similar fate would be his if he went home, despite his Olympic glory.
Four months later in Hawaii at the Honolulu Marathon, Lilesa came in fourth, but was as defiant as ever.
As he is quoted here, Lilesa has had no contact with the Ethiopian government, which is said to have been elected to power under suspect circumstances, and has been using oppressive methods to crackdown on opposition, starting in 2005 with the state of Oromia. Lilesa is from Oromia.
“For me, nobody has talked with me, not the Ethiopian government. If you support only him, he supports you. If you blame him, he kills you,” Lilesa said, referencing Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. “If you are talking about somebody they will automatically kill you. After I come to the U.S., many people have been killed. Many people, after I showed the sign, many people have died.”
After the Rio Olympics in August, Lilesa came straight to the United States, and has lived primarily in Flagstaff, Arizona. He wants to return to Ethiopia, as he fears for his family and his people in Oromia. But he does not believe the environment is right yet for his return.
It was 1960, when a barefooted Ethiopian named Abebe Bikila took the world by surprise to win the marathon at the 1960 Olympics. He defended his championship at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And since 1960, with the barefooted Ethiopian as its role model, runners from Africa have won the Olympic marathon 8 of the past 15 times, 4 times by an Ethiopian.
Right now, the silver medal is safe at home in Flagstaff. But, Lilesa said, its eventual resting spot is in the heart of Ethiopia. He hopes to one day pass on the medal to his native land. “In Ethiopia, when Ethiopian people will get their freedom, this will be my gift,” he said. “This Olympic medal, I give for the memorial for the dead people and for those to get their freedoms. This is my gift to the Ethiopian people.”
Mamo Wolde had already completed the 42-kilometer marathon in the oxygen-thin air of Mexico City, continuing Ethiopian dominance in the footsteps of Abebe Bikila. Wolde had already received his gold medal, and was likely resting somewhere inside the stadium when a humming murmur turned into joyful cheers on that evening of October 20, 1968.
A man was walking into the Estadio Olimpico Universitario, his right leg heavily bandaged. He limped decidedly, the result of falling close to the halfway point in the marathon while jockeying for position. He had dislocated his knee and banged up his shoulder in the collision with the pavement. He got treated, and kept running despite the pain, and the cramps.
While 17 in the 54-man field did not complete this most grueling of the long-distance competitions, John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, was determined to finish. As intoned in this somewhat over-the-top narration of Akhwari’s final steps in this video below, “a voice calls from within to go on, and so he goes on.”
Afterwards it was written, today we have seen a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in the human spirit, a performance that gives true dignity to sport, a performance that lifts sport out of the category of grown men playing a game, a performance that gives meaning to the word courage. All honor to John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania.
When asked why he kept running, Akhwari gave one of the most memorable quotes in sporting history: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles away to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish it.”
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