7th of August 1932, an African child opened his eyes for the first time in Shewa in the poorest of villages of Ethiopia.
Growing up as an adolescent child looking deep into the darkness of the blackest skies, this kid contemplated over his place in this world. A staff in the grips of his hand, he would stand on the highest of dunes of the magnificent desert, pondering if he could ever outrun this vast expanse of nothingness.
Belonging to a poverty-stricken family, he was deprived of a basic formal education, adding to this, he was also robbed of his right to any homeschooling due to his illiterate parents. Soon he followed in the footsteps of his father and became a Shepard. Rearing and tending to the sheep became his life’s work. He would run barefooted with his staff guarding the flocks. Little did he know that being able to bear the scorching heat and the twigs under his bare feet would one day help him conquer the Olympic world.
In his teenage years, he used to play with his friends. Particularly Gena, a traditional long-distance hockey game played with goalposts that were sometimes kept kilometres apart. Learning from his prior experience of herding sheep, he was exceptionally good at Gena; running barefooted swinging his hockey stick as if it were his staff. He had an excellent hold over the hockey and the goalposts that were kept kilometres apart seemed only a meter away due to his remarkable control over his stamina.
His aspirations of getting out of his hometown pushed him to his limits. Working as a shepherd in the mornings and as a waiter in the evenings at a local tea shop, he managed to save enough money to travel to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. He grew tired living in the same home around the same setting playing the same game. In hopes to find opportunities to make his life better for the lack of a better lifestyle, he soon set off for the capital. Upon reaching the city of Addis Ababa, this child was captivated by the huge structures and the beautiful monuments.
Something he had never seen before. However, in particular, what really impressed him were the Royal Guards in their training grounds rigorously striving to keep up. Intrigued with the idea of one day becoming a Royal Guard for the Imperial Palace, he permanently moved to Addis Ababa and soon applied to join the Infantry unit. In the training grounds, he struggled to keep up with the other participants, but he strived for his dreams with utter determination. Making every effort count, he found his resolve and in 1952, he became a part of the 5th Infantry Regiment of the Imperial Guard.
He was on his way to becoming a fine man. He had scrammed his way out of his village and was living an enjoyable life. He would get up in the mornings for his training and work as a guard to his highness in the evenings. Running 20kms every day from the hills of Sululta to Addis Ababa and back every day. He enjoyed embracing his new lifestyle. Not only did it keep him in good shape, but it gave him power over himself. A sense of resilience. Mindfulness.
His perseverance in the face of these challenging runs was as if God himself had possessed him. It was on one of these runs where he was first noticed by Onni Niskanen, a Swedish coach employed by the Ethiopian government to train the Imperial Guard. This is where the legend of the African child - Abebe Bikila - began. Niskanen observed Bikila closely over the next few days. His runs, his movement, his stamina, and his agility. Although due to his natural ability to run, he was excellent, he was still an amateur for what Niskanen had in his mind.
Niskanen wanted Abebe to star in the Olympics. He saw him as the Champion of the Marathon, but ‘The Olympics’ were a completely alien concept for Abebe. He had never been out of Ethiopia and had no exposure of any kind. When Niskanen first approached him, Bikila was especially reluctant and not keen on staring for the Olympics. Abebe was a man of God who had undying love for his country, which Niskanen tried to utilize and channel it into convincing him for the marathon.
Faced to make this difficult decision, Abebe found himself engulfed in a sphere of confusion. He would have to dedicate himself to vigorous training, be surrounded with people of different ethnicities, and be in a completely new setting. However, Bikila’s love for Ethiopia prevailed over his reservations, and the chance to make his country proud set him on the path for training.
He was not just a soldier anymore. He was a hero training to win the marathon. He would run for long hours learning how to conserve his breath and stamina. In 1956, after consistent training, Abebe finished second to Wami Biratu in the Ethiopian armed forces championship. In July 1960, Abebe won his first marathon in Addis Ababa. A month later, he won again in Addis Ababa with a time of 2:21:23, which was faster than the existing Olympic record held by Emil Zatopek. Soon after, he was inevitably selected to represent Ethiopia at the 1960 Olympic games. Under Niskanen’s tutelage, Abebe trained both with and without shoes. But as fate would have it, nearing the race, his shoes fell apart. Niskanen accompanied Bikila to local shoe shops, but there were none that fit him perfectly. This was the first major setback that Bikila faced. At that moment, Abebe realized that the perfect fit is no fit at all. He took a deep breath and took a trip down his memory lane. Remembering his childhood days when he would run barefooted over the stones and the gravel. Owing to his austere determination, he envisaged himself crossing the finishing line barefooted. With his frame of mind, he turned the hopeless state of affairs that he was confronted with into a situation that made him feel empowered.
There he was, Abebe Bikila making his way to the beautiful city of Rome to compete in the 1960 Olympics. It was his first time travelling out of Ethiopia.
A cloud of excitement? A stream of happiness? Or was he submerged in the tide of single-mindedness? As if a machine made to accomplish just one task, Abebe had his mind and heart set on the Gold Medal. Everything but the Marathon was a distraction.
Just in front of the Colosseum lined all the runners from every part of the world. Among them an unknown barefoot runner from Ethiopia. Shocked participants looked at Abebe with suspicion. He was going to run a marathon shoeless in the unbearable heat of Rome. The field of 69 athletes from 35 countries took to the start line at the Piazza del Campidoglio, the most sacred of Rome’s seven hills, and with a bang from the gun, the runners set off.
With world record-holder and the favourite of the event, Sergey Popov of the Soviet Union, only a few had heard of – let alone fancied – the barefooted Bikila.
Arriving at the 10km designated spot by 31:07, the lead bunch contained five-time Belgian champion Aurele Vandendriessche, Great Britain’s Brian Kilby, Ireland’s Bernie Messit in addition to Bikila and another moderately unheralded African, the Moroccan Rhadi ben Abdesselem, who had completed fourteenth in the 10,000m last only 48 hours sooner. Bikila was up against the best however, after 20kms into the race, the event started to take shape as the African pair – Bikila and Abdesselem – held onto the control of the race and opened up a close to a large portion of a-minute lead on the blurring Belgian Vandendriessche.
Bikila and Abdesselem relentlessly poured on the pace in a gladiatorial-style showdown. The pair hit the 25km mark at 1:20:27 more than a minute-and-a-half clear of Popov and the Arthur Lydiard-coached New Zealander Barry Magee, who were in a close duel for third and fourth.
That advantage had opened out to more than a two-minute chasm by 30km, and the lead duo remained inseparable at 35km (1:50:27), although Magee had opened up a clear gap on Popov.
After crossing the ancient Appian Way at 40km, the race for gold finally started to unravel. At first, Abdesselem surged ahead and Bikila started to see his hopes and the chance to make his country proud fade away. At a point so close to the finishing line, Bikila could not fall behind. As a Spartan charging on for war, Abebe responded to Abdesselem’s strike. Closing the 500m mark from the finish line, the Ethiopian made the decisive sprint at the Piazza di Porta Capena.
His strength to attack at this point came from the ironic and emotional history of Obelisco Di Axum.
He had his eyes intensely fixated on the square that contained the Axum, which had been stolen from Ethiopia by the Italians following their invasion of the East African Nation in 1936. This boiled up a cauldron of assorted emotions inside of Abebe. It wasn’t only about winning the marathon anymore, Abebe was running to win his country back. A chance to humiliate the Italians in their own home. And he took it. Swallowing the harsh pill of the cobblestones and gravel under his bare feet, he made his way to catch up to his rival. Identifying the monument, he lengthened his stride and moved clear of Abdesselem. As dark clouds covered the sky and the sun vanished behind the horizon, Italian soldiers lit the remaining of the course with torches. These provided enough light for Abebe to see the finishing line into the distance.
Bikila breasted the finish line at the Arch of Constantine in a world and Olympic record of 2:15:16.2 – trimming 0.8 from Popov’s world record. His competitor, the courageous Abdesselem, finished some 25 seconds behind to bank a richly deserved silver with Magee taking bronze.
The crowd at the 1960’s Olympics witnessed something that had not ever been seen before. The unknown barefoot runner in Rome had made his country proud. Bikila felt overwhelmed from the joyous chants and the sponsors swarming him like ants willing to sign him. He had done something that hadn’t been done before. He had made history. He conquered the event in a way that can only assign Bikila’s name to it. Abebe Bikila went on to defending his title four years later at the Tokyo Olympics setting a new world record of 2:12:11.2. This all was nothing short of a miracle. Nothing that anyone in the future might be able to do.
‘I want the world to know that my country Ethiopia has always won with determinism and heroism’. Abebe did not just say it, instead, he proved it.
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