Abebe Bikila signing autographs
|Full name||Abebe Bikila Demissie|
August 7, 1932|
|Died||October 25, 1973
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
|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 is most famous for winning a marathon gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome while running barefoot. In doing so, he also set the new world marathon record. He also became the first person in history to defend his Olympic marathon title in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, again setting a new world record.
Even before his athletic career, Abebe served as a member of the Imperial Guard. He originally joined as a non-commissioned officer but would eventually rise to the rank of shambel (captain). In Ethiopia, he is most commonly and formally referred to as Shambel Abebe Bikila (Amharic: ሻምበል አበበ ቢቂላ).
Abebe was a trailblazer 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 just a few of the athletes that have followed in his footsteps to establish East Africa as a formidable force in long-distance running. Abebe is celebrated as an legendary marathoner. In Ethiopia, there are many schools, venues and events named after him, including Abebe Bikila Stadium in Addis Ababa.
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 later known to maintain a farm.
As a young boy, he played gena—a traditional long-distance hockey game played with goalposts perhaps miles apart. 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. 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 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 had purchased 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 leading 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 would change hands several times between the athletes in the front. By about 25 km (16 mi), however, Abebe and Ben Adesselem would advance 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 Adesselem stayed together until the last 500 m (1,600 ft)—just as they neared the Obelisk again—Abebe sprinted to the finish line. In that 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 Adesselem 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 finishline, he started 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 with 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 temporarily 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.
In 1961, Abebe won marathons in Athens, Osaka and Košice. 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 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. To this day, Abebe and Waldemar Cierpinski remain the only athletes to win two gold medals in the Olympic marathon. 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 Alaqa (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, Abebe participated in two marathons in Zarautz and Seoul, winning both competitions. 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. 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.
Seeking a third consecutive gold, Abebe entered the 1968 Summer Olympics marathon held on October 20, this time along with Mamo and Gebru Merawi. Symbolically, Abebe was issued bib number 1 for this race. However, Abebe had to leave the race after approximately 16 km (10 mi), due to an earlier fracture to his left fibula. 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 which contradict this and Judah admits that it is difficult to know for certain what happened that night. Abebe was freed from the car the next morning and taken to the Imperial Guard Hospistal. 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. 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. He witnessed his countryman Mamo Wolde fail to match Abebe's twin marathon victories. Mamo finished third behind the American Frank Shorter and 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 of four years earlier. He left behind his wife and four children. He was buried with full military honours and his funeral was attended by 75,000 people, including Haile Selassie, who proclaimed a national day of mourning for the country's national hero. Abebe was interred at Saint Joseph's Church Cemetery in Addis Ababa in a tomb featuring a bronze statue commissioned by Abeselom Yehdego.
Abebe kicked off and largely inspired East African dominance in long-distance running. 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 Takoma, WA 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. He is also featured in a 1976 episode of Greenspan's The Olympiad documentary series: The Marathon. It chronicled his two Olympic victories and ended with a dedication ceremony for a gymnasium named for him 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 by Paul Rambali is a biographical novel (dramatizing Abebe's life) published in 2007. Bikila is a much less forgiving biography of Abebe by Tim Judah published in 2009 that refutes much of the mythical aspects of his life, especially the circumstances surrounding his accident.
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 Olympic glory, his accident (the circumstances of which are changed) and his determination to compete again.
In 2009, Robin Williams makes a 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."
|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|
- Ethiopia at the Olympics
- Sport in Ethiopia
- Marathon world record progression
- List of athletes who have competed in the Paralympics and Olympics
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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