Ethiopian distance legend Wami Biratu
Ethiopian marathon great Abebe Bikila was the Eliud Kipchoge of his day.
He burst on to the international athletics scene when winning the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics in a world record time, despite running barefoot. Four years later, at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he successfully defended his title with another world record performance.
But while Bikila went on to gain legendary status, few outside his home country are aware that he was Ethiopia's second-best runner in the build up to the Rome Olympics.
Wami Biratu is hardly known outside of his homeland, Ethiopia. Within the country, however, Biratu’s story is infamous.
Kon Ichikawa’s highly regarded documentary film about the 1964 Olympic Games, Tokyo Olympiad, is considered one of the greatest films about sports. The cinematic masterpiece is famous for departing from conventional sports narratives by focusing on the athlete experience and atmosphere of the Games, rather than only the winning performances.
In Tokyo Olympiad, long sequences of various competitions follow a montage of the opening ceremony, before zeroing in on the marathon (run only by men in 1964). Naturally, eventual winner Bikila takes centre stage. He was elated with his Tokyo triumph but, similar to how he felt after winning the title in Rome, he lamented the absence of Biratu, his key training partner.
When Michael Crawley was doing research for his book about Ethiopian running, Out of Thin Air, he was told meeting Biratu – “the grandfather of Ethiopian distance running” – was a must.
At 104 years old, despite being hard of hearing and lacking visual acuity, Biratu is still around to tell his story, and share the lore of the early days of Ethiopian distance running.
Biratu was born in Sululta, Ethiopia, where countless Ethiopians and international runners now train. “I grew up running after animals and catching animals,” he said, speaking in his dimly lit home in Addis Ababa. He still wears his Ethiopian national team tracksuit on a regular basis, and occasionally drapes all of his medals, which weigh about two kilos, around his neck. In the living room countless photos and newspaper clippings of him and Bikila, and some early Ethiopian athletes, line the walls.
“One day my grandmother came from Addis, where she bought some coffee, which was wrapped in a paper,” Biratu tells of his origin story. “When she was making the coffee she threw the paper aside and I saw on it a picture of a sportsman. I am tall, and the sportsman was short. So I thought, ‘if I have a competition with this guy I will win because I am taller’.”
Biratu’s pseudo-science was suspect, but it implanted dreams of participating in sport. A few years later Biratu went to Addis Ababa to join the army, and his dreams of competing began to materialise. He trained early in the morning and as Emperor Haile Selassie’s interest in sending competitors to the Olympic Games grew, they started to hold competitions in and around the capital.
Among the small group of runners was his new friend and training partner, Abebe Bikila. Bikila was a formidable opponent, but consistently finished second to Biratu. As their training progressed under the tutelage of Swede Onni Niskanen, they were both selected to compete at the Rome Olympics.
“Eight days before our departure I got very sick," he says. "At first no one took me to the hospital, and then they just decided I would stay behind.”
Bikila then went to win the 1960 Rome Olympic Marathon in bare feet – one of the most famous moments in long distance running. But, Biratu notes, Bikila credited his training partner thereafter. “They asked him how he felt to be a champion and he said ‘the champion is sick at home’.”
The following year, in the lead up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the two were invited to compete in a marathon in Osaka. They ran stride for stride for nearly 40 kilometres, Bikila wearing shoes, and Biratu barefoot. The hot pavement blistered the soles of Biratu’s feet, and he eventually motioned for Bikila to go ahead and leave him behind.
Biratu was later not selected to compete for the Tokyo Olympic team, but the athletes that were chosen remained keenly appreciative of his spartan influence. In addition to Bikila, the earliest pioneers of Ethiopian distance running – Mamo Wolde and Demissie Wolde – were often awoken to Biratu’s indefatigable energy. Never one to sleep in, Biratu was certainly instrumental in helping to cement an early morning and austere training style prominent in Ethiopia today, and establishing new places to train like Jan Meda, Entoto Mountain, and the Kotobe Forest, where several Olympians came to hone their skills.
The only time when Biratu really slowed down and stopped running was when his best friend, Bikila, died at the early age of 41. After recouping, he starting running again. And coaching. And organizing races. And telling stories.
Biratu remains a fixture in the Ethiopian running community. In 2017, his 100th birthday was celebrated with the Ethiopian Athletics Federation and broadcast on Ethiopian national television. And while few international fans ever saw Biratu compete, young Ethiopian athletes have been inspired by Biratu’s enthusiasm, as he still trains in the forests in northern Addis Ababa and has been known to finish highly competitive road races around the country.
Now he wears shoes, and is toward the back of the back, but his at-home champion status is at the forefront of Ethiopian running legacy.
Hannah Borenstein for World Athletics