There is something fitting about a warrior-like performance in a city like Rome. Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila will forever be remembered for his feat of running a marathon across the grand old city, and clinching the 1960 Olympic Games gold medal. And he did so, famously, barefoot.
Bikila, who was a member of the Imperial Bodyguard, was actually a last-minute addition to the Ethiopian team. An injury to Wami Biratu, while playing in a football match, led to Bikila’s call-up. And of course, he was not considered to be among the favourites for the event, what with the current world record holder Sergey Popov in the field.
According to the Guardian, “Bikila’s unofficial personal best for the 42.2km – better than the world record – was widely dismissed as impossible. He arrived in Rome with one pair of running shoes but they were ruined in training in the month before the Games. With his new ones causing blisters, his decision to compete barefoot, feet toughened by miles of shoeless training on the high Ethiopian plains, only added to the general derision.”
The run began in the evening to counter the heat in Rome and went on till darkness set in. Bikila made his move in the final stages and reached the finish line 25 seconds before the silver medal winner Rhadi Ben Abdesselam of Morocco.
According to his biography on Olympics.com:
“Bikila and his coach, Onni Niskanen, decided that Bikila should make his final move a little more than one kilometre from the finish line. It was at this point that the course passed the obelisk of Axum, a monument that had been plundered from Ethiopia by Italian troops and hauled away to Rome. When Bikila reached the obelisk, he was running even with Rhadi Ben Abdesselem of Morocco. Bikila successfully pulled away and won by 200m.”
There were also an intriguing subplot to Bikila’s historic run through the historic city.
According to World Athletics, “at about 500m from the finish, the Ethiopian made the decisive strike at the Piazza di Porta Capena. As was explained later, there was a delicious irony at Bikila attacking at this point because the square contained the Obelisco di Axum, which had been brought back from Ethiopia by the Italians following their invasion of the East African nation in 1936.”
And at the Arch of Constantine, came the crowning moment as he finished with the Olympic and world record. About his decision to run in bare feet, he is quoted as saying: “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”
Indeed, the feat was so epic that The Observer had called it back then, “the greatest marathon in the 64 years of Olympic history.”
Bikila’s sensational run through the famous streets of Rome to win gold with a new world record time is remembered to this day for the surprise factor as much as the surreal nature of his feat. Bikila also created another piece of history as he became the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal.
1960 Rome Men's marathon
|GOLD||Abebe Bikila||Ethiopia||2:15:16.2 (WR)|
|SILVER||Rhadi Ben Abdesselam||Morocco||2:15:41.6|
|BRONZE||Barry Magee||New Zealand||2:17:18.2|
|4||Konstantin Vorobyov||Soviet Union||2:19:09.6|
|5||Sergey Popov||Soviet Union||2:19:18.8|
Bikila still owns the Guinness World Record for: “The fastest marathon run in bare feet is 2 hr 15 min 16.2 sec at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, on 10 September 1960.”
Next edition in Tokyo, Bikila also entered the record books as the first athlete ever to win two Olympic marathons. It was yet another world record timing. And one that he achieved with shoes on.
He was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012.