Series23 Oct 2018

Jos Hermens’ story behind the picture - remembering Abebe Bikila


Jos Hermens visiting the grave of Abebe Bikila (© Jos Hermens)

Dutch athletics manager Jos Hermens talks about the significance of this image of him by the statue of the late two-time Olympic marathon champion Abebe Bikila.

“This picture, which was taken earlier this year, is of me next to the statue of Abebe Bikila in a graveyard in Addis Ababa.

“Sadly most of the graveyard has now disappeared as the land makes way for development but the image means a lot to me because Abebe Bikila was one of my early inspirations in the sport, and it is he who kick-started my fascination for Ethiopia and Ethiopian athletes.

“The year was 1962 when I first became aware of Abebe Bikila. That year I had joined my local athletics club in Nijmegen in the Netherlands when I went to the clubhouse to watch a two-hour movie of the 1960 Rome Olympics.

“Back then we had no TV at home, so this was my first experience of seeing moving images of the Olympics. Can you imagine the thrill and excitement I felt watching the grainy black and white footage.

“What stood out to me was watching Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia win the marathon running barefoot. I recall the race was run at night so watching Bikila run with the very primitive lighting on the streets, added to both the atmosphere and magic for me.

“Through the small TV box I could hear and sense the loud, rhythmic breathing of Bikila – and when I ran as a boy, I imagined I was Bikila running through the dark streets of Rome.

“I later went on to enjoy a successful athletics career competing in the 1976 Olympic 10,000m final and setting the world one-hour record but it was after my career was over and working for Nike when I re-engaged my interest in Ethiopia.

“I was looking for talent to compete in the Rotterdam Marathon and in 1982 I became the first agent to visit Ethiopia. Back then it was a communist country and Addis Ababa was a very different place to the vast metropolis it is today. I remember arriving for the first time in Addis and only seeing one or two lights across the whole city!

“I quickly developed a good relationship with the Ethiopian athletes and in the 1980s Abebe Mekonnen and Belayneh Dinsamo won the Rotterdam Marathon - with the latter setting a world record time in 1988.

“Later, of course, I went on to manage the careers of Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele – who both enjoyed huge success in the sport. 

“Other factors intrigue me about Ethiopia like the fact it has never been colonised and the language and culture of the country, so earlier this year when I went to Addis Ababa I thought it important that I pay a visit to Abebe Bikila’s statue. To have my picture taken there was a special and emotional moment for me.

*Note: Bikila went on to retain the Olympic marathon title in Tokyo before he sadly died aged just 41 in 1973.

Steve Landells for the IAAF