Shambel Abebe Bikila was an Ethiopian marathon runner who was a back-to-back Olympic marathon champion. He is the first Ethiopian Olympic gold medalist, winning his and Africa’s first gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome while running barefoot.
Abebe Bikila was born in 1932 in the small village of Jato, located in the mountains of Ethiopia. His life prior to becoming an Olympic legend was characterized by obscurity and modesty. Bikila joined the Ethiopian Imperial Bodyguard in 1952, where he was discovered for his natural athletic ability by Swedish coach Onni Niskanen.
Under the guidance of Coach Niskanen, Bikila began his rigorous training regimen, which involved running long distances and strengthening his endurance. He quickly rose through the ranks of Ethiopian runners and was chosen to represent his nation at the 1960 Summer Olympics.
The 1960 Rome Olympics was a turning point for Bikila. Despite Ethiopia’s lack of experience in long-distance running, Bikila was determined to make a statement. What set him apart was his unorthodox decision to run the marathon barefoot, a choice made out of necessity as the shoes he purchased in Rome did not fit well and gave him blisters. He consequently decided to run barefoot instead. Many questioned the wisdom of this decision, but Bikila had faith in his abilities.
Abebe Bikila not only ran the entire 26.2-mile marathon barefoot but did so with exceptional speed. He sprinted through the streets of Rome, running along many of the wonders of Ancient Roma. The course passed along the Caracalla Baths, ran down the Appian Way, and finished under the Arch of Constantine.
In the final stretch, Bikila broke away from his rivals, including Rhadi Ben Abdesselam of Morocco, to cross the finish line as the first person to complete a marathon in less than 2 hours and 16 minutes, shattering the previous world record held by Russia’s Sergei Popov.
Abebe Bikila’s victory was not just a personal achievement; it was a triumph for Ethiopia, a nation that had previously been overshadowed in the world of long-distance running. Bikila’s Olympic success marked a turning point for Ethiopian athletics and inspired a new generation of East African runners.
Abebe returned to his homeland as a hero, greeted by a large crowd. He was paraded through the streets of Addis Ababa along a procession route lined with thousands of people and presented to Emperor Haile Selassie, who awarded him the Star of Ethiopia and promoted him to the rank of asiraleqa (corporal).
Bikila’s triumph in Rome was just the beginning of his illustrious career. In the 1961 Athens Classical Marathon, Abebe again won while running barefoot. This was the second and last event in which he competed barefooted. He returned to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, becoming the first runner to successfully defend an Olympic marathon title. In both victories, he ran in world record time. This cemented his status as a true legend in the world of sports.
Abebe participated in a total of sixteen marathons. He placed second on his first marathon in Addis Ababa, won twelve other races, and finished fifth in the 1963 Boston Marathon. In July 1967, he sustained the first of several sports-related leg injuries that prevented him from finishing his last two marathons.
Tragically, Bikila’s life took an unexpected turn when a car accident in 1969 left him paralyzed from the neck down; he never walked again.
On October 25, 1973, Abebe died in Addis Ababa at age 41 of a cerebral hemorrhage, a complication related to his accident four years earlier.
He was buried with full military honours; his state funeral, attended by around 65,000 people, included Emperor Haile Selassie and marked a national day of mourning.
Bikila holds a revered status as a national hero in Ethiopia. He is celebrated as Africa’s first world record breaking athlete in any sport and the first sub-Saharan African Olympic gold medallist.
Abebe Bikila now rests in a tomb at Saint Joseph Church in Addis Ababa, alongside a bronze statue that serves as an enduring tribute to his legacy.