Abebe Bikila

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This article holds a patronymic name. This person is addressed by their name, Abebe, and not as Bikila.
Abebe Bikila
Abebe Bikila 1972.jpg
Abebe Bikila in 1972
Personal information
Born (1932-08-07)August 7, 1932
Jato, Ethiopian Empire
Died October 25, 1973(1973-10-25) (aged 41)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Empire
Height 1.77 m (5 ft 10 in)
Weight 57 kg (126 lb)
Country  Ethiopia
Sport Athletics

Abebe Bikila (Amharic: አበበ ቢቂላ; August 7, 1932 – October 25, 1973) was an Ethiopian double Olympic marathon champion. He is most famous for winning a marathon gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics while running barefoot. In doing so, he also set the new world marathon record. He was the first person in history to defend his Olympic marathon title in the 1964 Summer Olympics again setting a new world record.

A stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honor.


Early life[edit]

Abebe Bikila was born on August 7, 1932, in the small community of Jato, Amhara Region, Ethiopia.[1] His birth coincided with the day of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Marathon. His father was a shepherd. Abebe decided to work for the Imperial Guard to support his family, and walked over 20 kilometers to Addis Ababa, where he began working as a private bodyguard for the members of the royal family.[citation needed]

In mid-1950s, Abebe would run 20 km (12 mi) from the hilly area of Sululta to Addis Ababa and back every day. A Swedish coach employed by the Ethiopian government to train the Imperial Bodyguards, Major Onni Niskanen, soon spotted him and began training him for the marathon.[1]

1960 Summer Olympics in Rome[edit]

Abebe sprints away from Rhadi Ben Abdesselam near the end of the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics

Abebe was included in the Ethiopian Olympic team only at the last moment, as the plane to Rome was about to leave, as a replacement for Wami Biratu, who was seriously ill.[disputed ] Niskanen entered Abebe and Abebe Wakjira in the marathon.[1]

Adidas, the shoe sponsor at the 1960 Summer Olympics, had few shoes left when Abebe went to try out shoes and he ended up with a pair that didn’t fit comfortably, so he couldn't use them.[citation needed] A couple of hours before the race, Abebe decided to run barefoot, the way he'd trained for the race.[citation needed] Abebe was warned by Niskanen about his main rivals, one of whom was Rhadi Ben Abdesselam from Morocco, who was supposed to wear number 26. For unknown reasons, Rhadi did not acquire his black marathon bib before the race, and instead was wearing his regularly assigned track and field bib number 185.

The late afternoon race had its starting point at the foot of the great staircase of the Capitoline Hill. The finish was at the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum.[2]

During the race Abebe passed numerous runners as he searched for Rhadi's number 26. By about 20 km, Abebe and Rhadi (actually wearing number 185) had created a gap from the rest of the pack.[citation needed] Abebe kept looking forward to find the runner with number 26, unaware that Rhadi was running right beside him.[citation needed] They stayed together until the last 500 m, when Abebe sprinted to the finish line.[citation needed] Abebe won in a record time of 2:15:16.2 finishing 25 seconds ahead of Rhadi.[3] He becaming the first Sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold medal.[citation needed] He set a new world record.[4]

After the race, when Abebe was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, “I wanted the whole world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism."[5]


On December 13, 1960, while Emperor Haile Selassie was on a state visit to Brazil, his Imperial Guard forces, led by General Mengistu Neway, staged an unsuccessful coup, briefly proclaiming Selassie's eldest son Asfa Wossen as Emperor.[citation needed] Fighting took place in the heart of Addis Ababa, shells detonated inside the Jubilee Palace, and many of those closest to the Emperor were killed.[1]

Abebe took no part in the uprising, but was briefly held in detention after the coup. Most of the surviving Guards were disbanded and dispersed. One newspaper remarked boldly: "Abebe owes his life to his gold medal."

In 1961, Abebe ran marathons in Greece, Japan, and Košice in Czechoslovakia, all of which he won. Abebe entered the 1963 Boston Marathon and finished in just 5th place—the only time in his career that he finished a marathon and did not win.[6] He returned to Ethiopia and he didn’t compete in another marathon until the one in Addis Ababa in 1964. He won this race, taking 2:23:14 to complete the course.

40 days prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, during a training run near Addis Ababa, Abebe Bikila started to feel pain. Unaware of the cause of the pain, he attempted to overcome this pain but collapsed. He was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. He was operated on and shortly thereafter and even during his recovery period he started jogging in the hospital courtyard at night.

1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo[edit]

Abebe with son at the 1964 Olympics

Abebe Bikila traveled to Tokyo but was not expected to compete. He did enter the marathon.[7] He used the same strategy as in 1960: to stay with the leaders until the 20 kilometer point, then slowly increase his pace. After 15 km he only had company from Ron Clarke of Australia and Jim Hogan of Ireland. Shortly before 20 km only Hogan was in contention and by 30 km, Abebe was 40 seconds in front of Hogan and two minutes in front of Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan in third place. He entered the Olympic stadium alone to the cheers of 70,000 spectators. He finished the marathon in a new world record time of 2:12:11.2; 4 minutes, 8 seconds in front of the silver medalist Basil Heatley of Great Britain. Kokichi Tsuburaya came in third. He was the first athlete in history to successfully defend the Olympic marathon title.[8] After finishing he astonished the crowd: not appearing exhausted, he started a routine of stretching exercises. He later stated that he could have run another 10 kilometers.

Abebe returned to Ethiopia to a hero's welcome once again. He was again promoted by the Emperor, and he received his own truck, a white Volkswagen Beetle with some upgrades.

1968 Olympics – Mexico City[edit]

Once again Abebe and Mamo Wolde were entered in the marathon (symbolically, Abebe was issued bib number 1 for this race). This time however Abebe had to leave the race after approximately 17 km, due to an injury in his right knee. According to Bud Greenspan's Favorite Stories, an Olympics documentary, Abebe broke a small bone in his foot a few days before the race, while running barefoot. He watched his friend and long time running partner Mamo Wolde win the gold medal. Mamo Wolde later stated that if Abebe had not been injured, he would surely have won.[9]


In 1969, during civil unrest in Addis, Abebe was driving his Volkswagen Beetle when he had to swerve to avoid a group of protesting students. He lost control of his car, which landed in a ditch, trapping him. He was freed from the car but the accident left him a quadriplegic. He was operated on at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England, after which his condition improved to paraplegic.

Niskanen convinced him to compete in archery competitions for athletes in wheelchairs and Abebe joked that he would win the next Olympic marathon in a wheelchair. In 1970, he competed in a 25km cross-country sledge competition in Norway winning gold.[2]

Abebe was invited as a special guest to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where he witnessed his countryman Mamo Wolde fail to match Abebe's twin marathon victories; Wolde finished third behind American Frank Shorter and Belgium's Karel Lismont. After Shorter received his gold medal, he went to Abebe to shake his hand.

On October 25, 1973, Abebe Bikila died in Addis Ababa at the age of 41 due to a cerebral hemorrhage, a complication related to the accident of four years earlier. He left behind his wife and four children. His funeral in Addis Ababa was attended by 75,000 people. Emperor Haile Selassie proclaimed a national day of mourning for the country's national hero. Newspapers throughout Africa eulogized him as an inspiration to their own distance runners, some of whom won gold medals in future Olympics. Abebe was interred at Saint Joseph's Church Cemetery in Addis Ababa.

Five years after his death, the New York Road Runners inaugurated an annual award in his honour – the Abebe Bikila Award, which is given to individuals for their contributions to long-distance running.[10]

A stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honor. The American Community School of Addis Ababa dedicated its gymnasium to Abebe Bikila in the late 1960s. In August 2005, with the assistance of A Glimmer of Hope Foundation and its supporters Isabel and Dave Welland, an Oromo school named Yaya Abebe Bikila Primary Village School was erected in Abebe's honor by the local Mendida community. The school sits a few hundred meters from the remains of the village of Jato.


  • "I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism"[11]
  • "Men of success meet with tragedy. It was the will of God that I won the Olympics, and it was the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily."[12]

In popular culture[edit]

Abebe Bikila Bridge in Ladispoli, Italy

Abebe's victory at the 1964 Olympics is featured in the 1965 documentary film Tokyo Olympiad. Footage from that film was later recycled for the 1976 thriller film Marathon Man.

Abebe was featured in the Bud Greenspan film The Marathon. It chronicled his two Olympic victories and ended with a dedication ceremony for a gymnasium named for him shortly before his death.

2009 Atletu (The Athlete) is a film directed by Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew which focuses on the final years of Abebe's life: his quest to regain Olympic glory, his accident (the circumstances of which are changed), his determination to compete again. The film was shot in 35mm, from the Arctic Circle to the Equator.

In 2010, Vibram introduced the "Bikila" model of its FiveFingers line of minimalist shoes.

Robin Williams made reference to Abebe's barefoot running in his stand-up special "Weapons of Self Destruction", saying, "[Abebe] won the Rome Olympics running barefoot. He was then sponsored by Adidas. He ran the next Olympics; he carried the fucking shoes."

In 2010, the Rome Marathon celebrated 50 years of Abebe Bikila's Olympics Race. To honour him, Ethiopian runner Siraj Gena ran the last 300 meters of the race barefoot and won it (for this he was awarded 5000 euro bonus).[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Judah, Tim (July 25, 2008). "The glory trail". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on January 17, 2017. Retrieved January 17, 2017. 
  2. ^ a b Martin, Simon (April 25, 2012). "50 stunning Olympic moments No24: Abebe Bikila runs barefoot into history". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on January 17, 2017. Retrieved January 17, 2017. 
  3. ^ "Rome 1960 marathon men - Olympic Athletics". Olympic.org. Archived from the original on January 17, 2017. Retrieved January 17, 2017. 
  4. ^ "Hall of Fame Profile - Abebe Bikila (Ethiopia)". IAAF.org. March 8, 2012. Archived from the original on January 17, 2017. Retrieved January 17, 2017. 
  5. ^ Rambeli, Paul (2006). Barefoot runner: the life of marathon champion Abebe Bikila. london: Serpent's Tail. 
  6. ^ The Olympic Marathon by Martin and Gynn, ISBN 0-88011-969-1
  7. ^ "Tokyo Olympic Marathon 1964". The 1964 Olympic Marathon. 
  8. ^ Abebe Bikila. sports-reference.com
  9. ^ Barefoot Runner by Rambali, ISBN 1-85242-904-6
  10. ^ Tergat to receive the Abebe Bikila Award. IAAF/NYRR (October 28, 2010). Retrieved on October 31, 2010
  11. ^ Fassberg, Teddy (July 10, 2008). "Inconvenient truths". The Jerusalem Post. ISSN 0792-8211. Retrieved January 17, 2017. 
  12. ^ L. Fufa, July 2008 A. Bikila's Biography

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Soviet Union Sergei Popov
Men's Marathon World Record Holder
September 10, 1960 – February 17, 1963
Succeeded by
Japan Toru Terasawa
Preceded by
United Kingdom Basil Heatley
Men's Marathon World Record Holder
October 21, 1964 – June 12, 1965
Succeeded by
Japan Morio Shigematsu