It remains, arguably, one of the most significant landmark moments in our sport.
When Abebe Bikila – running barefoot – became the first black African to win an Olympic marathon gold medal on the streets of Rome, it was without doubt one of the most iconic moments of the 1960 Games.
Yet beyond the isolation of this magical moment in athletics history, Bikila’s legacy can be felt on the tracks, cross country trails and roads across the planet thanks to the East African endurance running explosion.
From Keino to Bayi, from Rono to Ngugi, Tulu to Dibaba, Tergat to Gebrselassie and Bekele to Kipchoge, the East African legends have lit up the sport for the past six decades.
And all owe a debt of gratitude to Bikila, the first global East African champion who made everything that followed a possibility.
Takes up running at 19
Born in Jatta in the mountainous region of Debre Bihan – coincidentally on the same day that Argentina’s Juan Zabala won 1932 Olympic marathon gold at the Los Angeles Games – Bikila grew up in a rural environment. Working as a cattle herder, it was on a trip to the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa as a teenager which was to change the whole direction of his life.
Visiting the Imperial Palace – where he saw the Body Guard Forces in training – he was impressed. Aged 19, he applied to join the Imperial Body Guard and was accepted.
All the guards were encouraged to pursue vigorous physical exercise and Bikila quickly discovered a natural ability to run. He initially featured as a 5000m and 10,000m runner before making his marathon debut as part of the 1959 Military Forces Day Celebrations in Addis Ababa.
Identified as a future talent by Swedish coach Onni Niskanen, Ethiopia’s then Director of Athletics, Bikila was given a structured training programme, and just one month before the Olympic Games, he won the Ethiopian Marathon Trials in Addis Ababa.
His performance was impressive. Despite competing at an altitude of more than 2400m, the slender Ethiopian raced to victory in 2:21:23 – a time faster than the Olympic record.
The performance booked Bikila a place on the Ethiopian team for Rome and he headed to the Italian capital an inexperienced, although quality athlete.
Running barefoot, a legend is born
Under Niskanen’s tutelage, he had trained in Ethiopia both with and without shoes. However, in the final days of preparation for the Games in Rome, his shoes fell apart. He went to a local shoe store but after picking up a pair of shoes which gave him blisters, he opted to run barefoot for the biggest race of his career.
On a course which took in many of the iconic sights of the city of Rome, the race started at 5.30pm in an effort to avoid the worst of the heat. Scheduled to finish after sunset, hundreds of Italian soldiers lit the course with torches.
Even with the late start, however, the field of 69 athletes from 35 countries took to the start line at the Piazza de Campidoglio – the most sacred of Rome’s seven hills – facing a temperature of 23C.
With world record-holder Sergey Popov of the Soviet Union the pre-event favourite, few would have even heard of – let alone fancied – the barefooted Bikila to feature.
At the 10km checkpoint, reached in 31:07, the lead group contained five-time Belgian champion Aurele Vandendriessche, Great Britain’s Brian Kilby, Ireland’s Bernie Messit plus Bikila and another relatively unheralded African, the Moroccan Rhadi ben Abdesselem, who had finished 14th in the 10,000m final just 48 hours earlier.
By the 20km mark the race started to take shape as the African duo – Bikila and Abdesselem – seized control of the race and opened up a near half-a-minute lead on the fading Belgian Vandendriessche.
Bikila and Abdesselem relentlessly poured on the pace in a gladiatorial-style showdown the nearby Colosseum was once accustomed to.
The pair hit the 25km mark at 1:20:27 more than a minute-and-a-half clear of Popov and the Arthur Lydiard-coached New Zealander Barry Magee, who were in a close duel for third and fourth.
That advantage had opened out to more than a two-minute chasm by 30km and the lead duo remained inseparable at 35km (1:50:27), although, behind, Magee had opened up a clear gap on Popov.
Inspired by the Obelisk of Axum
After leaving the ancient Appian Way at 40km, the race for gold finally unravelled. First Abdesselem surged but Bikila responded. Then at about 500m from the finish, the Ethiopian made the decisive strike at the Piazza di Porta Capena.
As was explained later, there was a delicious irony at Bikila attacking at this point because the square contained the Obelisco di Axum, which had been brought back from Ethiopia by the Italians following their invasion of the East African nation in 1936.
Identifying the monument, he lengthened his stride and moved clear of Abdesselem, although in the final 60 metres the Ethiopian had one final obstacle to overcome as he had to deftly negotiate an errant motor scooter which has made its way on the course.
Bikila breasted the finish line at the Arch of Constantine in a world and Olympic record of 2:15:16.2 – trimming 0.8 from Popov’s world record. The courageous Abdesselam finished some 25 seconds behind to bank a richly deserved silver with Magee taking bronze.
A successful title defence followed
Rome was not the end of Bikila’s sporting story. Four years later he returned – this time running in shoes – to successfully defend his Olympic title in Tokyo in a stunning world record mark of 2:12:11.2. It was a masterful performance by the Ethiopian who won by a victory margin of more than four minutes, despite just 40 days earlier having undergone an appendectomy.
Bikila returned for a crack at winning a hat-trick of Olympic titles at the 1968 Mexico City Games but was forced to withdraw through injury after 17 kilometres.
In 1969 he suffered a broken neck and spinal cord injuries in car accident which left him paralysed. He died in 1973 aged just 41 of a brain haemorrhage related to the accident.
In a remarkable career from 1960 to 1966, Bikila won 12 out of the 13 marathons he completed; his only defeat coming at the 1963 Boston Marathon, where he placed fifth.
Yet perhaps his greatest triumph was not on the streets of Rome or Tokyo but in the indisputable legacy he has left behind as revealed by the unprecedented decades of distance-running dominance enjoyed by his fellow East Africans.
Steve Landells for World Athletics