Abebe Bikila was exceptionally talented at the marathon, winning two gold medals,
setting world records, in the process heralding a new era in marathon
running, one in which speed was the key to victory, rather than raw strength
and endurance. More than three decades after his running career ended,
Bikila is widely recognized as the greatest marathoner of all-time.
Abebe Bikila was born in 1932 in a town called Jato,
outside of Addis Ababa. According to tradition, he spent most of his
childhood as a shepherd and a student. In 1952, young Abebe was hired
by the Imperial Body Guard. In 1954, he married W/t Yewibdar W/Giorghis
with whom he had four children.
Bikila spent a number of years with the Imperial Guard
before he distinguished himself as an athlete. His defining moment came
when he was watching a parade of Ethiopian athletes who had participated
in the Melbourne Olympics. Looking at the athletes who were wearing
a uniform with names written on the back, he asked who they were. When
told that they were athletes who represented Ethiopia in the Olympics,
he was determined to be one of them.
In 1956, at the age of 24, he participated in the
national armed forces championships.
The hero of the time was Wami Biratu, who held the national records
in 5,000 and 10,000 meters. During the marathon, the crowd at the stadium
was waiting, expecting to see Biratu win the race. In the first few
miles, Wami was leading. After a while, radio broadcasters informed
the crowd that a young unknown athlete by the name of Abebe was leading.
As Bikila was extending his lead, the crowd waited anxiously to see
this new sensation. Bikila easily won his first major race and later
on went to break the 5,000 and 10,000 meter records held by Wami. With
those impressive results, he qualified for the Rome Olympics.
Finally, Bikila's dream of wearing that outfit with
Ethiopia's name written on the back was realized. Abebe's race in the
Rome Olympics established him as a running legend. Not only did he win
the race, he also set a new world record of 2:16:02, running on the
cobblestone streets of Rome without shoes. He was also the first African
to win an Olympic medal. Commenting on why he had run on bare feet,
Abebe said, "I wanted the world to know that my country Ethiopia has
always won with determination and heroism."
Bikila came to Boston in 1963, the heavy favorite
to take the historic marathon. But cold winds blowing in off the ocean
in the late miles felled the great Ethiopian, and he settled for fifth
place in a pedestrian 2:24. At the Tokyo Olympics a year later, Bikila's
fame had reached all corners of the globe. Despite the Boston debacle,
he was favored to win the Olympic Marathon yet again. Six weeks before
the marathon however, Bikila was taken ill with Appendicitis. He underwent
surgery amid a public outcry for a proper medical treatment. The day
he arrived in Tokyo, he hadn't fully recovered from the surgery and
limped down stairs. However, the reception Abebe received from the Japanese
people helped him recover quickly and unexpectedly. Along with teammates
Mamo Wolde and Demssie Wolde, Bikila resumed his regular training a
few days after his arrival in Tokyo. The marathon, particularly the
way Abebe won it barely six weeks after his surgery, was astonishing.
This time he wore shoes, but still won the race easily. And the gymnastic
display he showed right after finishing the race is now a classic image
engraved in the minds of hundreds of millions of people. This was also
the first time ever that the Olympic marathon race was won consecutively
by the same athlete. The new world record of 2:12:11 that Abebe set
was icing on a cake for this remarkable race. Bikila trained hard for
the Mexico City Olympics of 1968. Unfortunately, he had to withdraw
from the race after 15 kilometers. His compatriot, Mamo Wolde would
later finish the race victoriously. Bikila competed in more than 26
major marathon races in his illustrious athletic career.
The world championships he won in 1960 and 1962
deserve special recognition. In 1968, The legendary Bikila was involved
in a car accident in the city of Sheno near Addis Ababa that left him
paralyzed below the waist. Over the next several months, he was treated
both in Ethiopia and abroad. Even while in a wheelchair, Abebe's competitive
spirit and helped him compete and win several races. In 1970, he participated
in a 25 Km cross-country competition in Norway where he won the gold
medal. The illustrious life of the legendary Abebe Bikila came to a
tragic end in October of 1973 when he finally succumbed to a disease
he had battled for many months. This eternal Ethiopian hero was buried
in the grounds of the St. Joseph church in the presence of a huge crowd
and the then emperor, Atse Haile Selassie. His life was over, but the
memories remained. Bikila ushered in a new era in marathon running -
and he made it look easy.
Gebreselassie, just 23, slashed the world 5,000
record by an astounding 11 seconds on a tumultuous Zurich night last
August. In addition he holds the world outdoor 10,000 meter and two-mile
marks and switched serenely from the track to the boards this year to
shatter the world indoor 3,000 and 5,000 records.