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
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
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.
The third Olympic Games were held in St Louis, Missouri in the United States in 1904, after the first two modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, and then in Paris in 1900.
The early years of the Olympics were a struggle as organizers fought for mindshare. As was true in the Paris Games, the St Louis Olympic Games were second billing to the World’s Fair, which were highly popular expositions in the early to mid-20th century.
According to the book, A Picture History of the Olympics, the organizers promised to arrange a ship to visit all major European ports to bring athletes to the first Games outside of Europe, but somehow the ship never crossed the Atlantic. Despite the Olympic rings representing the five continents, really only one had significant representation. Of the 650 athletes present, 580 were from America.
Swimmers had to swim in an assymetrical lake that made it hard for swimmers to stay in their lanes. The only item on the menu for the athletes was buffalo meat. And a new contraption called the car kicked up so much dust and spewed so much exhaust that marathoners had to cough their way through 42 kilometers.
The initial winner of the 1904 marathon was Fred Lorz, who stopped running after 16 kilometers, hopped on a vehicle for nine miles before it broke down, and then ran the rest of the way. He finished first easily, and was greeted by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Eventually, Lorz’s ruse was uncovered and he was banned for a year. Thomas Hicks, from Boston, was declared the winner. Lorz, a New Yorker, apologized for his “joke”, was allowed to compete before the year was up, and went on to win the 1905 Boston Marathon.
Which all reminds me of a New Yorker named Rosie Ruiz. She won the 1980 Boston Marathon in a record 2:31:56, about 25 minutes better than her previous race in the New York City Marathon six months earlier. How did she improve so greatly? She simply started the race about 800 meters from the finish, emerging from a crowd of spectators on Commonwealth Avenue.