A man by himself, under the sky of Rome. Dark skin like concrete, barefoot, smiling, the very first one to cross the finish line under the Arch of Constantine. It was Saturday 10th of September 1960 and the 17th Olympic Games of Rome terminated with a legendary challenge, the one named Abebe Bikila, symbol of Africa that was finally obtaining the so much wanted independence, freeing itself from the grasp of the European colonialism.
The Olympic Games of the 1960 in Rome, the last summer games happened in Italy, went down in history for the historical moment, the Cold War between the Soviet Bloc and the West, where the sport was used as powerful means of propaganda, and for its location, the Eternal City, symbol of the Bel Paese, prosperous and cutting- edge during the economic boom which had quickly pushed away the bad memory of the recent postwar.
The 17th Olympic Games of Summer 1960 were also the very first one broadcast on tv and Eurovision, and the ones where they will sanctify athletes like Livio Berruti, gold medal to the 200-meter dash, the Soviet gymnast Boris Šachlin, 7 medals in total and 4 gold ones and the extremely young Cassius Clay, future Muhammad Ali, gold medal in the boxing tournament, at the time light-heavyweight class.
Italy, the hosting nation, obtained the extraordinary third position in the medal collection, after Soviet Union and US, with its 36 medals in totals, 13 gold , 10 silver and 13 bronze ones.
The exceptional parade of the worldwide sport terminated on the 11th of September with the last competitions of horse riding and field hockey, but the most spectacular moment happened the night before, on the 10th of September 1960, when on schedule there was one of the most traditional competition, the men’s marathon.
there are 69 athletes competing to the 42,195 km long challenge: there was the French Alain Mimoun, gold medal in Melbourne 1956, Silvio De Florentiis, Italian champion, and the Soviet Sergej Popov, current European champion and record holder on distance and amongst the favourite to the final success.
Some important names and plenty stranger faces, like the one of the African that one month before the Games he turned 28 and got noticed for his skeletal body, so that many people asked themselves how he could even finish the marathon.
His name was Abebe Bikila, number 11 on his chest, 177 cm tall (5’9″))and around 50 kg heavy (110 lb). A set of muscles made out of ebony. That challenge along the streets of the capital was his 3rd marathon, and the previous ones had been performed back home, in the previous weeks as a complete amateur, just like the original spirit of the Games would expect.
Abebe Bikila was born on the 7th of August 1932 in a family of shepherds from Jato, North from the capital Addis Abeba. He was merely 3 years old when the Kingdom of Italy invaded Ethiopia, starting a bloody war which ended up with the African country becoming part of the properties of Benito Mussolini. During the conflict around 50 to 70 thousands of Ethiopians fell, so the family of Abebe was forced to leave.
Around the 20’s, the man became a guard of the Negus and in this period he discovered his passion for athletics, so his legend started to take shape. He was running on a daily basis from the hills of Sululta to Addis Abeba, back and forth for around 40 km (25 miles): pretty much a marathon every day. It was the 1958 when, during a small amateur marathon organised by the Ethiopian Armed Forces, a Swedish trained set his eyes on him, Onni Niskanen. He came closer and convinced him to be trained. In his head he was already imagining him on the Olympic Games of Rome scheduled in 2 years time.
The 1960 arrived, Abebe Bikila married the young Yewebdar and he got ready to leave for the Games. Once landed to Rome, something that both the athlete and his trainer had not considered happened. The shoes of the Ethiopian were way too worn out for such a prestigious tournament, so the man convinced him to buy a new pair. The new shoes, however, were not comfortable for Bikila so he decided to take a foolish decision: he ended up running the race and its 42,195 km all barefoot.
Below: Abebe during the Marathon in Rome
It was late afternoon of Saturday 10th September 1960, the sun started setting on the capital and the marathon of the 17th edition of the olympic Games begun.
Abebe Bikila warmed up on the starting point; not many of the other 68 participants knew him, but they were noticing his barefoot, maybe while concealing their smiles. They were about to know him soon though, the whole world was.
Halfway from the end, Abebe Bikila was still a stranger, one of the many legs running endlessly towards the finale. Throughout the race though, the group started loosing pieces: out the current champion Mimoun, outdistanced the favourite Popov, and with the finish line approaching the challenge decreased to 2 main runners: the Moroccan Rhadi Ben Abdesselam and Abebe Bikila, the shoeless man running fast towards history. There was just one km left, that was the decisive moment. Abebe Bikila sprinted as if he had forgot about the previous 41 km done pounding on his feet, calves, his spleen. The Ethiopian splinted, leaving his opponent behind, unable to reply to the final tactic of the barefoot athlete.
A man on his own, when in Rome the evening had already arrived, ran uncatchable towards the final line. When he crossed it, under the Arch of Constantine and the stars of the Eternal City in the shadow of the Flavian Amphitheater, Abebe was already icon of the sport. The audience praised him, but he seemed serene, just as if he had reached his working place in Addis Abeba, like any other day. He touched his feet, checked some blisters, did some rapid stretching, turned his shiny head, saw the second place Ben Abdesselam arriving with 25 seconds delay, and then let the Roman audience hug him. The legend says how, in an interview right after the triumph, Abebe declaired to feel pretty fresh and that, if it was for him, he would have done some further 10-15 km. (6-9 miles).
The first words of a man entering history.
That lean boy, unknown until a few hours before, won the Olympic medal, the first one for a sub-Saharan athlete, with the time of 2 hours 15’16”2, improving even the global record of Sergej Popov. The Soviet man, favourite athlete at the beginning, arrived over 4 minutes after the African; the current champion Alain Mimoun, arrived 16 minutes afterwards. In the 7th position, with about 6 minutes gap, Abebe Wakgira, another Ethiopian taken to Rome by Onni Niskanen that, like the champion, had decided to run the race barefoot.
Bikila became symbol of the whole continent, free from the colonialism in those years. He didn’t stop running, and 4 years later he came back to the Tokyo Olympic Games. The Ethiopian arrived to that appointment not at his best as he had endured an operation of appendectomy one month earlier. Still he didn’t give up on partaking in the games and to defend his title. Despite the poor health, Abebe Bikila, this time with a pair of branded shoes, won one more time the gold medal, crossing the line inside the Olympic stadium of Tokyo under the applause of the 75,000 people with his 2 hours 12’11”2, improving his previous time of more than 3 minutes and world record. The second place, the British Basil Heatley, arrived 4 minutes and 8 seconds later.
With this result Bikila was the first Olympic champion to repeat the victory in marathon, challenge accomplished then only by the East German athlete Waldemar Cierpinski, winner of the gold medals in the Olympic Games of Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980.
As an Olympic champion the Ethiopian athlete, 38 years old at the time, arrived to Mexico City to the Games of the 1968 but, due to an accident to his fibula and the elevation, he was forced to withdrawing from the race around the 15th km (10th mile). The winner was that time the other Ethiopian runner, Mamo Wolde.
The Games from the 1968 closed the career of Abebe Bikila, but it was the following year in 1969 that his life radically changed. It was the night of the 22nd March 1969 and Bikila, perhaps tipsy, was driving his Volkswagen Beetle around Addis Abeba when he had an accident. He was extracted from the car but the accident got him paralysed from the waist down. Him, champion of two Olympic Games as a runner had no control over his leg any longer. Life can be very mocking at times.
Below: Abebe Bikila in 1968
The Ethiopian man did not lose his spirit but instead started to focus of different sports fitting his new condition like archery, table tennis and sled. In 1972 he took part in the 4th Paralympic Games in Heidelberg in the archery discipline and, sent to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games of Monaco ( the ones sadly remembered for the Munich Massacre), he received a standing ovation from the audience of the Olympiastadion.
One year after his presence to the Paralympics, on the 25th October 1973, Adebe Bikila died, hit by a cerebral hemorrhage linked to his health conditions. To the world sport icon and hero of that night of 60 years ago in Rome they paid homage by having 65,000 people attending his funeral. The body was then buried in the parish cemetery of St Joseph in Addis Abeba.
A sentence of the time affirmed that in 1935 Italy needed 500,000 soldiers to seize Ethiopia while in 1960 Ethiopia needed only one to conquer Rome: Abebe Bikila. The national stadium of Addis Abeba has been named after the great champion while Rome, on the 10th of September 2010, for his 50th anniversary from his Olympic venture, made a plaque in his honour along the Olympic itinerary in front of the entrance of the Palatine Hill.
Below: the plaque about the endeavour of Abebe. Picture by Lalupa shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Beside the official film “The Grand Olympics” from 1961 made by the Romolo Marcellini, in 2009 it has also been created the biographical film “The Athlete” directed by Rasselas Lakew and Davey Frankel.
Recently the French author Sylvain Coher published “Vaincre à Rome”, literally winnign in Rome, talking in the 60th anniversary of Bikila’s gold medal. The Ethiopian athlete was furthermore mentioned in the film “Marrakech Express” by Gabriele Salvatores, when Gigio Alberti started running barefoot looking for a gas station.