Though a footwear malfunction dashed Eliud Kipchoge's hopes of a marathon world record in Berlin on Sunday, the Kenyan still recorded his second major marathon win of 2015 in a personal best 2:04:00. He spearheads our celebration of athletics' footloose flyers.
Five months on from claiming the London Marathon crown, Eliud Kipchoge lined up in Berlin as the favourite to win the first major marathon of the Autumn calendar. While he was physically primed and mentally prepared for an assault on the world record, his insoles had other ideas.
The 30-year-old’s footwear problems began in “the first kilometre”, and before the Kenyan had hit half way the innards of his luminous racing shoes had wriggled free and were flapping around his ankles. Still he ran beautifully, shaking his rivals with a burst between 30-35km, covering that 5k in 14:23.
Apparently there was “lots of blood” by the end, only affirming Kipchoge as the most fearsome road racer in the world.
Class of 2015
While Kipchoge had barefoot thrust upon him, others do so through choice. At the World Youth Championships in Cali, Colombia, back in July, Estonian decathlete Christian Hausenberg competed in the high jump barefoot.
A slip on his first attempt at 1.90m was enough to scare him into lacing up. He cleared at the third attempt, ultimately claiming bronze behind Germany’s Niklas Kaul and France’s Ludovic Besson.
At the senior world championships later this summer, another youth-aged athlete pulled a stunt that had mothers the world over tutting into their cornflakes.
A spikes-less Abdullah Al-Qwabani posted the slowest time of the two 5000m heats. That doesn't sound good at first, but in what was effectively a race against himself, the 16-year-old Yemeni ran a personal best 16:02.55. So shut the tut up and eat your cereal, Ma.
Tegla Loroupe, the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon, first had her talent spotted after winning a domestic cross country race barefoot. She got her first pair of spikes soon after, and went on to win three individual and two team world half marathon championship gold medals, along with a hatful of major marathon titles.
Loroupe’s free-footed XC foray wasn’t even revolutionary in the 1980s. A few years earlier, Bloomfontein-born Brit Zola Budd had established herself as the best mud runner in the world, despite eschewing the luxury of fabric underfoot.
Budd won back-to-back world cross country titles in ‘85 and ‘86, both barefoot. Though she remains best known for her involvement in Mary Decker’s fall in the 3000m at the 1984 Olympics, her feats in Lisbon and Colombier deserve to be upheld as the defining moments of her career.
In 1993, Kenya’s Moses Tanui lined up to defend his 10,000m world title in Stuttgart. After 24 of the 25 prescribed laps, the reigning champion led a group of two: the other half being 20-year-old Ethiopian protégé Haile Gebrselassie.
With the last chimes of the bell still ringing in the Stuttgart air, Gebrselassie caught Tanui on the left heel with a stray spike, prompting the angered Kenyan to kick off the trodden-on shoe and make a burst for home. For half of that last lap it looked as if the rush of blood had sparked the perfect move, only for Gebrselassie to glide past Tanui in the home straight to claim his first world title.
Tanui was annoyed to have only won silver, and barely competed on the track again. Still, he found success on the roads, winning the Boston Marathon in ‘96 and ‘98 – with shoes.
In an interview with the Guardian two years ago, Gebrselassie, who racked up eight world and two Olympic titles, referred to Abebe Bikila as a hero.
A last minute replacement to Ethiopia’s Olympic marathon team, Bikila arrived in Rome in 1960 to find there were no right-fitting shoes available to him. He decided to compete as he trained: barefoot.
After manoeuvring to the front at the halfway stage, he sprinted away from Moroccan pre-race favourite Rhadi Ben Abdesselam in the final half mile to win Ethiopia’s first ever Olympic gold medal. The new national hero retained his title, this time wearing shoes, four years later in Tokyo.
Since Bikila, 43 Olympic medals have returned to Ethiopia. It was a trail first blazed barefoot and fancy-free.