Abebe Bikila signing autographs
|Native name||ሻምበል አበበ ቢቂላ|
|Full name||Abebe Bikila Demissie|
August 7, 1932|
|Died||October 25, 1973
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
|Resting place||Saint Joseph Church
|Height||1.77 m (5 ft 10 in)|
|Weight||57 kg (126 lb)|
|Achievements and titles|
|Personal best(s)||Marathon: 2:12:11 (Tokyo 1964)|
Abebe Bikila (Amharic: አበበ ቢቂላ?; August 7, 1932 – October 25, 1973) was an Ethiopian double Olympic marathon champion. He won the marathon event at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome while running barefoot. In doing so, he also set a new world marathon record. At the 1964 Summer Olympics held in Tokyo, he became the first person to defend an Olympic marathon title, where his finish time again set a new world record. Abebe was a member of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard, an elite infantry division that also served as personal security to the Emperor of Ethiopia. He originally joined as a non-commissioned officer, prior to his athletic career, and later rose to the rank of shambel (captain). In Ethiopia, he is formally referred to as Shambel Abebe Bikila (Amharic: ሻምበል አበበ ቢቂላ?).
Abebe was a pioneer in long-distance running. Mamo Wolde, Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat, and Tegla Loroupe—all recipients of the New York Road Runners' Abebe Bikila Award—are a few of the athletes that have followed in his footsteps to establish East Africa as a formidable force in long-distance running. He participated in a total of fifteen marathons in his career. He won twelve of those races and finished fifth place in the 1963 Boston Marathon. Beginning in July 1967, he suffered a few sports-related injuries to his leg that prevented him from finishing the last two marathon races he competed in.
On March 22, 1969, Abebe was involved in a car accident that caused his complete paralysis. He would eventually gain some mobility in his upper body but would never run or even walk again. While receiving treatment in England, he competed in the archery and table tennis competitions in the 1970 Stoke Mandeville Games held in London, an early predecessor of the Paralympic Games. He also competed in the same two sports in the disabled games competition held in Norway in 1971, as well as winning first place in cross-country sleigh-riding.
Abebe died on October 25, 1973 at the age of 41 due to a cerebral hemorrhage, a complication related to his accident four years earlier. A state funeral was held in his honour and Emperor Haile Selassie declared a national day of mourning. Many schools, venues and events are named after him, such as Abebe Bikila Stadium in Addis Ababa. Abebe is the subject of several documentary films which document his athletic career. There are also several biographical books written about his life and he is often featured in publications about the marathon and the Olympics.
Abebe was born on August 7, 1932, in the small community of Jato, then part of the Debre Berhan district of Shewa. His birth coincided with the day of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Marathon. He was the son of Wudinesh Beneberu and her second husband Bikila Demissie. During the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, his family was forced to move to the remote town of Gorro. By then Wudinesh had divorced Abebe's father and married Temtime Kefelew. The family eventually moved back to Jato or nearby Jirru, where they are known to have maintained a farm.
As a young boy, Abebe played gena—a traditional long-distance hockey game played with goalposts perhaps miles apart. Around 1952, he joined the 5th Infantry Regiment of the Imperial Guard after moving to Addis Ababa the year before. In the 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. In 1956, Abebe came in second to Wami Biratu in the annual Armed Forces championship in Ethiopia. According to Tim Judah, Abebe's entry in the Olympics was a "long planned operation" and not a last minute decision as is commonly believed.
Abebe married the 15-year-old Yewebdar Wolde-Giorgis on March 16, 1960.[note 1] Although it was arranged by his mother, Wudinesh, Abebe was pleased with his marriage. They remained married for the rest of his life.
1960 Summer Olympics in Rome
In July 1960, Abebe won his first marathon competition in Addis Ababa. A month later, he won again in Addis Ababa with a time of 2:21:23 which would have bested the Olympic record of the time held by Emil Zátopek. Niskanen entered Abebe and Abebe Wakjira in the 1960 Rome Olympics marathon to be held on September 10. In Rome, Abebe purchased new running shoes, but they did not fit well and caused blisters. He decided to run barefooted instead.
The late afternoon race had its start at the foot of the great staircase of the Capitoline Hill. The finish was at the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum. The race course twice passes Piazza di Porta Capena where the Obelisk of Axum was then located. By the time they passed the Obelisk the first time, Abebe was at the back of the lead pack, which included among others: Arthur Keiley, Rhadi Ben Abdesselam, Bertie Messitt, and Aurèle Vandendriessche.
Between 5 km (3 mi) and 20 km (12 mi), the lead changed hands several times amongst the athletes in front. By about 25 km (16 mi), however, Abebe and Ben Abdesselam advanced to create a gap from the rest of the pack. They were trailed by Barry Magee and Sergei Popov, who were more than two minutes behind at the 30 km (19 mi) mark.
Abebe and Ben Abdesselam stayed together until the last 500 m (1,600 ft), just as they neared the Obelisk again; then Abebe sprinted to the finish line. In the early evening darkness, his path along the Appian Way was lined with Italian soldiers holding torches. Abebe won in a time of 2:15:16.2, finishing 25 seconds ahead of Ben Abdesselam and breaking the world record by one-eighth of a second. He became the first Sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold medal. Immediately after crossing the finish line, he began to touch his toes and run in place. He later stated that he could have run another 10–15 km (6–9 mi).
Abebe returned to his homeland a triumphant hero and his arrival was greeted by a large crowd, many dignitaries and the commander of the Imperial Guard, Brigadier-General Mengistu Neway. Abebe was paraded through the streets of Addis Ababa in a procession lined with thousands of people and presented to the Emperor Haile Selassie. The emperor awarded him the Star of Ethiopia and promoted him to the rank of asir aleqa (corporal). He was also given the use of a Volkswagen Beetle driven by a chauffer (as he did not yet know how to drive) and a home—all of which was owned by the Guard.
Beginning on December 13, 1960, while Haile Selassie was on a state visit to Brazil, his Imperial Guard forces, led by Mengistu, staged an unsuccessful coup, briefly proclaiming Selassie's eldest son Asfaw Wossen Taffari as emperor. 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. Although not involved directly, Abebe was briefly arrested and questioned. Mengistu was later hanged and his forces, which included many members of the Imperial Guard, were either killed in the fighting, arrested or disbanded.
Abebe entered the 1963 Boston Marathon and finished in 5th place—the only time in his competitive career that he completed in an international marathon and did not win. He returned to Ethiopia and did not compete in another marathon until the one in Addis Ababa in 1964. He won that race, taking 2:23:14.8 to complete the course.
1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo
Forty days prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, during training in Debre Zeit, Abebe started to feel pain. He was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. On September 16, he underwent an appendectomy. He was back on his feet within a few days and left the hospital within a week.
Abebe entered the marathon held on October 21, this time wearing PUMA shoes. He began the race by staying right behind the lead pack until about 20 km (12 mi) into the race, where he slowly increased his pace. At 15 km (9 mi), he only had company from Ron Clarke of Australia, who was in the lead, and Jim Hogan of Ireland behind Clarke—with Abebe following closely. Shortly before 20 km (12 mi), Abebe took the lead and only Hogan was in contention as Clarke began to slow. By 35 km (22 mi), Abebe was almost two and a half minutes in front of Hogan, and Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan came up within 17 seconds behind Hogan in third place. However, Hogan soon dropped out exhausted, leaving only Tsuburaya, who was three minutes behind Abebe by the 40 km (25 mi) mark.
Abebe entered the Olympic stadium alone to the cheers of 75,000 spectators. The crowd had been listening on the radio and were anticipating his triumphant entrance. He finished the marathon in a new world record time of 2:12:11.2. That was four minutes and eight seconds in front of the silver medalist Basil Heatley of Great Britain who overtook Tsuburaya inside the stadium. Tsuburaya came in third a few seconds behind Heatley. After finishing, not appearing exhausted, he again performed his routine of calisthenics
Abebe became the first athlete in history to successfully defend the Olympic marathon title. As of the 2016 Summer Olympic Marathon, Abebe and Waldemar Cierpinski remain the only athletes to win two gold medals in the event. For the second time, Abebe was awarded Ethiopia's only gold medal. He returned to Ethiopia to a hero's welcome once again. The emperor promoted him again to the commissioned officer rank of meto aleqa (1st lieutenant). He was awarded the Order of Menelik II, his own private Volkswagen Beetle, and a house.
On April 21, 1965, as part of the opening ceremonies for the second season of the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair, Abebe and Mamo Wolde participated in an exclusive ceremonial half marathon. They ran from the Arsenal in Central Park at 64th Street & Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to the Singer Bowl at the fair. They carried with them a parchment scroll with greetings from Haile Selassie.
In May 1965, Abebe returned to Tokyo to win his second Mainichi Marathon. In 1966, he participated in marathons at Zarautz and Inchon–Seoul, winning both. In 1967, he again competed in the Zarautz International Marathon but this time did not finish. He had injured his hamstring and would never recover from it. He had also begun to limp and the Inchon–Seoul Marathon would become the last marathon he completed.
In July 1968, Abebe travelled to Germany to pursue treatment for "circulatory ailments" in his legs. The German government refused to accept payment for their services. Abebe returned in time to join the rest of the Ethiopian Olympic team training in Asmara which shares a similar altitude (2,200 m or 7,200 ft) and hot climate with Mexico City, the host of the next Olympic Games.
A week before the race, Abebe began suffering from a pain in his leg. Doctors discovered a developing fracture to his left fibula and he was advised to stay off his feet until the day of the race. Seeking a third consecutive gold, Abebe entered the 1968 Summer Olympics marathon held on October 20, this time along with Mamo Wolde and Gebru Merawi. Symbolically, he was issued bib number 1 for the race. However, he had to leave the race after approximately 16 km (10 mi). This was his last marathon appearance. Nonetheless, he was promoted to the rank of shambel (captain) upon his return to Ethiopia.
Accident and death
In 1969, on the night of March 22, Abebe was driving his Volkswagen Beetle when he lost control and the vehicle overturned with him trapped inside. According to Judah, it is possible he may have been drinking. Judah also quotes Abebe's own accounts of that night as relayed in the biography written by Tsige Abebe, his daughter. Abebe recalls that the accident was a result his attempt "to avoid a fast, oncoming car." Judah admits that it is difficult to know for certain what happened. Abebe was freed from the car the next morning and taken to the Imperial Guard Hospital. The accident left him a quadriplegic and he would never walk again. On March 29, he was transferred to the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England. He spent eight months at that hospital receiving treatment. While there, he was visited by Queen Elizabeth II and received get-well cards from all over the world. At the beginning, he could not even move his head, but his condition eventually improved to paraplegic.
In 1970, he began training to compete in archery competitions for athletes in wheelchairs. In July of that year, he competed in archery and table tennis in the Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games held in London. In April 1971, he competed in a disabled games competition in Norway. He had actually been invited as a guest but once there decided to compete in archery, table tennis, and even won first place in cross-country sleigh-riding out of a field of sixteen with a time of 1:16:17.
Abebe was invited as a special guest to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where he received a standing ovation during the opening ceremonies. His countryman Mamo Wolde was unable to match Abebe's twin marathon victories. Wolde finished third behind the American Frank Shorter and the Belgian Karel Lismont. After Shorter received his gold medal, he went to Abebe to shake his hand.
On October 25, 1973, Abebe died in Addis Ababa at the age of 41 due to a cerebral hemorrhage, a complication related to the accident four years earlier. He was buried with full military honours and his state funeral was attended by an estimated 65,000 people, including Haile Selassie, who proclaimed a national day of mourning for the country's national hero. Abebe was interred at Saint Joseph Church in Addis Ababa in a tomb featuring a bronze statue.
Abebe began and largely inspired East African dominance in long-distance running. According to Kenny Moore, a comtemporary athlete and writer for Sports Illustrated, Abebe began "the great African distance running avalanche." He brought to the forefront the now accepted relationship between edurance and high altitude training. 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.
In Ethiopia, Abebe is a national hero. A stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honour. In the late 1972, the American Community School of Addis Ababa dedicated its gymnasium, which included facilities for the disabled, to Abebe Bikila. 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 honour by the local Mendida community. The school sits a few hundred metres from the remains of the village of Jato.
On March 21, 2010, the Rome Marathon celebrated the 50th anniversary of Abebe's Olympic victory. To honour him, Ethiopian runner Siraj Gena ran the last 300 m (984 ft) of the race barefoot and won it (for this, he was awarded a 5000 euro bonus). A plaque celebrating the anniversary is mounted on a wall next to Via di San Gregino. The same year, a footway in Ladispoli, Italy was named in his honour.
In 2010, the Italian company Vibram introduced the "Bikila" model of its FiveFingers line of minimalist shoes, trademarking the name in the process. In February 2015, a lawsuit was filed in US federal court in Tacoma, Washington, claiming that Vibram violated federal law and the state's Personality Rights Act. The case was dismissed in October 2016 on grounds that complainants were aware of Vibram's use of the name in 2011 but chose not to file a suit till 2015. The judge in the case, Ronald Leighton wrote that "this unreasonable delay prejudiced Vibram."
In popular culture
Abebe is the subject of Bud Greenspan's 1972 documentary film: The Ethiopians. It was incorporated into The Marathon, a 1976 episode of Greenspan's The Olympiad documentary series. The Marathon chronicles Abebe's two Olympic victories and ends with a dedication ceremony for a gymnasium named in his honour shortly before his death.
Triumph and Tragedy is a biography written by his daughter Tsige Abebe. It was published in Addis Ababa in 1996. Barefoot Runner (2007) by Paul Rambali is a biographical novel dramatizing Abebe's life. Bikila: Ethiopia's Barefoot Olympian is another biography, written by Tim Judah and published in 2009. According to Tim Lewis, it is a more journalistic and less forgiving biography of Abebe. It refutes the mythical aspects of his life—especially the circumstances surrounding his accident—while still recognizing his accomplishments. Its account of Abebe's life differs significantly from that of Rambali's but confirms and frequently cites Tsige's biography.
Atletu (The Athlete) is a 2009 film directed by Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew which focuses on the final years of Abebe's life: his quest to regain his Olympic title, his accident and his struggle to compete again.
|1960||Armed Forces championship||Addis Ababa, Ethiopia||1st||2:39:50|
|Olympic trials||Addis Ababa, Ethiopia||1st||2:21:23|
|Olympic Games||Rome, Italy||1st||2:15:16.2|
|1961||Athens International Marathon||Athens, Greece||1st||2:23:44.6|
|Mainichi Marathon||Osaka, Japan||1st||2:29:27|
|Košice Marathon||Košice, Czechoslovakia||1st||2:20:12.0|
|1963||Boston Marathon||Boston, USA||5th||2:24:43a|
|1964||Armed Forces championship||Addis Ababa, Ethiopia||1st||2:23:14.8|
|Olympic trials||Addis Ababa, Ethiopia||1st||2:16:18.8|
|Olympic Games||Tokyo, Japan||1st||2:12:11.2|
|1965||Mainichi Marathon||Tokyo, Japan||1st||2:22:55.8|
|1966||Zarautz International Marathon||Zarautz, Spain||1st||2:20:28.8|
|Inchon–Seoul Marathon||Seoul, South Korea||1st||2:17:04a|
|1967||Zarautz International Marathon||Zarautz, Spain||DNF|
|1968||Olympic Games||Mexico City, Mexico||DNF|
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Abebe Bikila.|
- Abebe Bikila's Profile on Olympic.org
- Video tribute to Abebe Bikila on Youtube.com
- Video footage of Abebe Bikila at the 1960 Summer Olympics
- Marathon portion of 1965 documentary Tokyo Olympiad.
|Men's Marathon World Record Holder
September 10, 1960 – February 17, 1963
|Men's Marathon World Record Holder
October 21, 1964 – June 12, 1965