Rome 1960: Stunning Bikila declares Ethiopia a land of runners


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Nicosia (AFP)

Ethiopian Abebe Bikila is an amazing runner who runs barefoot as if in the steppes of his country, behind sheep.

He won the Marathon in Rome 1960 on the last night of the Games, and crossed the finish line looking fresh, unaffected by distance and effort. His physical fitness and vitality surprised the doctors after the 42,195 km struggle.

The “Ethiopian tourist” penetrated the streets of the Italian capital, discovering ancient Rome, reclaiming the victory and breaking the record set by Czechoslovakian Emil Zatopek in the 1952 Helsinki Games (2:23:03.2 hours).

Bikila, 28, a soldier in the Ethiopian Imperial Guard, came out of the ranks and broke through the vanguard to reach the finish line barefoot. Sports shoes do not comfort him, and running without them is easier. He scored 2:15:16.2 hours, compared to 2:15:41.6 hours for Moroccan Abdel satisfied peace.

Bikila (58 kg, 1.76 m) was a model for a generation of African long-distance runners who made their mark on the long-distance, fruitful harvest of Emperor Haile Selassie’s Guard Regiment, Helsinki-born Swede Omni Niskanen.

Four years before the Games, an expert coach discovers a young soldier who has been in the Imperial Guard since his teens, dazzling him with his stamina. A young man coming from the remote countryside and born on August 7, 1932, the day he organized the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics.

When Bikila won gold in Rome, the barefoot sprinter was unknown, but his record time made him a legend for being the first black African athlete to be crowned an Olympic champion. Ironically, he won his title in Rome, the capital of the country that colonized Ethiopia, and crossed the line of access (under the Arch of Constantine, steps from the Coliseum) from where Mussolini sent his forces a quarter of a century ago to invade Abyssinia.

Bikila, the son of a poor farmer from the Amhara tribe in southern Ethiopia, is dark brown, disheveled, and sharp-nosed. Niskanen took over his affairs and led him to that great historical victory. When he returned to his country, it was natural for him to receive the heroes’ welcome. The Negus (the emperor) gave him an apartment and a car. But soon after, a rebellion took place in the Imperial Palace (December 13), after which all the guards were arrested and executed by firing squad, with the exception of Bikila, whom the Emperor personally intervened to save, and before that day his Olympic gold saved him.

With the arrival of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Ethiopian coach hesitated to include Bikila in the team because he had undergone an appendectomy five weeks ago. In any case, the runner ran the race wearing athletic shoes this time and won it with a record of 2:12:11 hours, becoming the first to retain the title of this difficult race. He received in his country the reception of the conquerors and was rewarded with his promotion to the rank of lieutenant

At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Bikila had to withdraw after 17 km of the marathon due to a foot injury.

This was a minor matter compared to what this married Olympic champion (of four children) later suffered when he was paralyzed as a result of a car accident in 1969. However, his relentless determination prompted him to participate in a wheelchair archery competition in England. On October 25, 1973, he died at the age of 41 due to a brain hemorrhage, and a solemn funeral was held for him in his country on a day declared by the emperor as a day of national mourning.

– natural sole –

Bikila has always preferred to run barefoot because he feels more comfortable and spontaneous. He would only put on his shoes when he felt the path would injure him. As a result, the skin on the bottoms of his feet has hardened and is now millimeters thick and looks like a “normal” sole, and he no longer irritates, stings, or ache.

Bikila trained twice a day, early in the morning and before dusk. He warms up for a long distance and then runs the 1500m series to develop speed as well as long country runs classes. This diversification is useful, especially since the area is mountainous and the required places are available. Niskanen also asked his student to jog up to the heights and plateaus very quickly, as well as to do gymnastics for flexibility and lift light weights. The response of Bikila’s heart was excellent, with a heart rate of 45 beats per minute at rest.

Bikila revealed that before the Rome race, Niskanen told him that he had a good chance of winning, and asked him to watch the Soviet and the contented Moroccan runners and to be careful and alert, not to advance and lead before the 30 kilometer, and he could only take charge at the start if the race was slow. He added: “I finally set off when the time came and I still have a store of decency. I am happy for my country, for the Emperor and for my wife who is waiting for me in our little house in Addis Ababa.”

In the qualifying race for the Games, Bikila passed the distance with a time of 2:21:30, knowing that the track was much more difficult, the length of the climb is 10 km, and the general incline is 250 m, compared to 90 m in Rome. The Ethiopian capital is located at an altitude between 2000 and 3000 meters above sea level.

In Rome, Bikila ran his third marathon, and had previously excelled at a distance of 25 km, with a record of 5 thousand 14:36 ​​minutes, knowing that there are no official records for him in 10 thousand AD. However, his performance indicators confirm his ability to pass this distance (25 laps of the 400-meter track) in a time of less than 29 minutes. And when there are ideal conditions to race on the coast, he can break Zatopek’s record against the clock.

Niskanen was very hopeful of a group of young Ethiopian runners to prepare them for the upcoming tournaments. Bikila was the first of that convoy that set off. After retaining the title in Tokyo, his compatriot Mamo Waldi won the Mexico Games in 1968.



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