Abebe Bikila: World’s Most Legendary Marathon Runner, Double Olympic Marathon Wins and World Records

Ethiopian legend Abebe Bikila was Africa’s first world record breaking athlete/ marathoner and first Ethiopian and first sub-Saharan African Olympic gold medalist. He would also become Africa’s first Olympic double-gold medalist and double world-breaking athlete. No one else in the world has won two Olympic gold medals in the marathon, while simultaneously breaking the world record! The statistics and the honors go on and on, and many structures and trophies exist in honor of the infinitely memorable Abebe Bikila.

To many, Bikila was Africa’ overall first Olympic marathon gold medalist. However the continental African Alain Mimoun (Alain Mimoun O’Kacha) of Algeria which was then a colony of France won the marathon gold medal at the previous Olympics held in Melbourne in 1956. Mimoun was listed as a competitor for France throughout his legendary running career during which he won one Olympic gold medal, three Olympic silver medals, and four Mediterranean Games gold medals. And even before Mimoun, there was Algeria-born Ahmed Boughera el Ouafi who won the Olympic marathon gold in Amsterdam in Amsterdam but considered himself French. The 1956 Olympic win by Mimoun brought back the spotlight on Boughera El Ouafi who was then miring in poverty!

At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome on September 10th, Bikila who had previously never ran the marathon outside Ethiopia, and did not start running competitively until he was 24 years old, completed the course in the world record 2hrs-15min:16.2secs. The previous world record was held by Sergei Popov (2-15:17.0) of the Soviet Union. The Rome 1960 marathon course was quite trying given that Bikila’s bare feet had to contend with the heavily cobble-stoned Rome roads. Further, because of the heat, the race began at sunset and even had to be guided by Rome’s armed forces holding up torches in the dark. Aforementioned previous Olympic marathon champion Alain Mimoun, aged 39, finished 34th in 2-31:20.0. As the winner in Melbourne, 35 year-old Mimoun had finished in a relatively slow 2-25:00

Abebe Bikila was born on August 7th 1932 in Jato Village in the Semien Shewa (~North Shewa) zone of the province Amhara in Ethiopia. As a competitive runner Bikila was approximately 130 pounds (60 kg), very slender at a tall 5′ 10″ (1.77m). The son of an Oromo shepherd, Bikila was a last-minute addition to the Ethiopian Olympic team. Bikila had moved from Jirru Village early in the 1950’s after leaving his father and rejoining his mother in Addis Ababa. Bikila became impressed by the city, and most of all the neatly dressed and precise and disciplined Imperial Bodyguards. He would join the force and became a private in 1956. Abebe had as a youngster been known to be a good swimmer, a skillful horse rider, and a guna hockey player.

About the forthcoming Olympics, the preferred 1960 marathon entrant Wami Biratu had recently suffered a broken ankle from playing soccer and Bikila was added to the national team just before the plane to Rome would leave. Legendary Mamo Wolde who would win Olympic silver/ gold and bronze, later on in the 1968 and 1972 respectively would also be an Olympian in Rome where would fourth in the 10000m finals.

As for Bikila, the last-minute inconvenience also involved the shoe sponsor Adidas not having enough shoes left to avail to athletes. The closest to his shoe-size were poorly fitting and uncomfortable that two hours before the marathon race Bikila decided to run barefooted–just like he had trained at home for the race.

For the first quarter of the race, Abebe was behind but in eye-distance the leading pack. He speeded up and after a third of the distance had caught up with the leading pack that included Aurele Vandendriessche (Van den Riessche) of Belgium, Arthur Kelly (Great Britain) and Rhadi Ben Abdesselam (Morocco). Halfway through the race, it was Rhadi and Bikila in the forefront and running side-by-side. But Abebe did not know that this was the Rhadi that he had been warned about!

Before the race, Bikila’s Finnish-Swedish trainer Major Onni Niskanen whose primary duties were to set up the Ethiopian Imperial Guard in which Bikila was a private, indicated to Bikila that one of his main rivals would be the Moroccan Rhadi who was assigned to wear “26” on his bib. However, Rhadi mysteriously did not wear his black marathon bib, and instead wore his regularly assigned track (he also competed in the 10000m) bib that was numbered “186.” Rhadi had not even been listed in the marathon program!

As the race progressed, Bikila searched and looked in the distance.for the athlete numbered “26” as he passed other athletes. Bikila had been unaware that the athlete numbered “186” and running beside to him after the two had created quite a significant lead from the rest of the pack was actually Rhadi. At three miles toward the end of the race, the two then ran alongside each other neck-to-neck. A quarter mile towards the end, Bikila unleashed a sprint for the finishing line after gaining a considerable distance from Rhadi! Bikila won by nearly 200 yards ahead of Rhadi, beating a field of 75 men. At the end of the race, Bikila still looked fresh and ran quite past the finishing line. He exercisingly stretched and jumped up and down after the race, and later claimed that he would have been capable of maintaining the same pace for ten more miles. Bikila, undoubtedly, would have lowered the world record further.

Asked by John Underwood (1965: 4) as to why Bikila had ran barefooted in Rome, Major Onni Niskanen would years later remark:

“…not…strange for an Ethiopian to run barefoot… When he runs I…count-98 steps a minute barefoot…. With shoes, 96…. But shoes are better on a strange course because of stones…things…might cut you….in Rome we could not get the shoes…right. He had blisters from some he…tried….Abebe said to me ‘…I will win without shoes. We will make…history for Africa.’ He is a great patriot”

Niskanen adds:

“Before 1959 I hardly knew…Abebe…. He…third in the marathon trials for…Olympics…he was 27…. At the beginning…trouble. He did not hold his head properly, his arms flew all over…balance…bad. I had to [nearly] keep yelling at him….sometimes he was hard to convince…. But the dedication, the willpower of this man-none like him…. Abebe was made by Abebe, not by me or anyone. People asked if he was surprised he won in Rome. He had never run out of the country before….Abebe…always expects to win….He has no anxieties” (Underwood 1965: 5).

On May 7th 1961, Bikila participated in the fourth Classical Marathon. Here in Athens, a barefooted-running Bikila was the victor in 2:23:44.6, defeating marathoners from Finland, Turkey, United Arab Republic, Belgium, and Greece (“Ethiopian Runs Barefooted, Sets Marathon Mark” in “St. Joseph Gazette,” May 8th 1961, page 7).

On July 25th 1961, Bikila was a participant in the annual Osaka (Mainichi) Marathon. This marathon striated in 1946 in Osaka and in 1962 was renamed Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon when the competition was relocated to Otsu city which is the home of Japan’s oldest and largest lake (Biwa). Bikila had earlier been laid off from competition by his coach, for six months, to allow for recovery from a leg ligament injury acquired at the starting of a race in Praha. The conditions in Osaka. were notably chaotic with the now legendary Olympian becoming halted to a stop three times during the course by excited fans who darted in to take flicks of him! A whole 19 of the 47 competitors were frustrated enough (also courtesy of the very high temperatures) to quit the race. Though Bikila won, he was timed at a relatively slow 2-29:27. Nevertheless, a good-natured Bikila was to remark, “At least I’m thankful for the cheers of the crowd” (“A Roundup Of The Sports Information Of The Week” in “SI Vault”: July 10th 1961).

In the 1962 New Year’s Sao Silvestre “around-the-houses” 7300m (4.5 miles) street race held in Sao Paulo in Brazil, Bikila was beaten into second place by the schoolmaster Martin Hyman of the United Kingdom. Hyman finished in 21:24.7, 5.1 seconds ahead of Bikila.

Later, on October 12th 1962, Bikila would win in the marathon held in Kosice in Czechoslovakia in 2:20:12. In the same year, in Berlin, Bikila won in the 10000m run at a track meet. He became internationally ranked as among the top ten runners in the distance. The same year, in Copenhagen witnessed Bikila win a 20000m race in which he finished in 1-11.0.

At the Boston AA marathon staged in April 1963, Bikila seemingly wobbly toward the last stretch, was beaten by the Belgian Aurele Vandendriessche (Van den Rieessche). The Rieessche finish in 2-18:58 involved Vandendriessche became surprised at catching up with the leading Bikila when there were two miles left. It was a course record in an event that fielded nearly 300 runners! Vandendriessche, who held the 30000m world record, won by about 450 meters (In “Lewiston Daily Sun,” April 20th 1963, pp 6: “Belgian Bookkeeper, Vandendriessche Establishes Record; Johnny Kelley Second”). Bikila was surprisingly fifth behind second-placed Johnny Kelly of Connecticut (2-21:00), then Brian Kilby (2-21:43) of England, with 3-time Boston Marathon and defending champion and detective Eino Oksannen of Finland settling for fourth place in 2-22:23. Bikila (2-24:43) would claim that his loss was a result of his misreading the route. This was the first time in the foregone ten races Bikila had participated in, that he had lost! Perhaps the muscles on his spindly legs were getting worn out! But no Olympic champion had ever won in the Boston Marathon!

About the Boston Marathon, Major Niskanen who had not accompanied his athlete this time, suggested that the temperatures were low and Bikila had not dressed up appropriately for the challenging cold. Plus he and Mamo Wolde did not have the glucose that would have negated the lactic acid builds-up; both started cramping about five miles to the end when Bikila lost his lead. Both intermittently stopped and sat and massaged their legs up to four times (Underwood 1965: 5).

Also noteworthy of the marathon is that in 1963, the world record was shattered three times, and then once prior to the forthcoming Olympics that would take place in Tokyo in 1964. On February 17th 1963, 28 year-old Toru Terasawa of Japan reduced Bikila’s world record by less than a second to 2-15:15.8 during the Beppu-Oita Marathon held on the Kyushu Island in Japan. Later, on June 15th 1963, Leonard Edelen (Leonard Graves “Buddy” Edelen) of the United States improved on that to 2-14:28 and thus became the first sub 2-15 marathoner. This was during the Polytechnic Marathon (an annual run that was held in or around London between 1909 and 1996 and was notably the first marathon to be held regularly).

Less than a month later, on July 6th 1963, Brian Leonard Kilby of the United Kingdom, at that time the European and also Commonwealth Games champion, won Port Talbot Marathon in Wales. Although Kilby finished in 2-14:43, many regard this as having been a world record, indicating that there was some mis-recording or disputation over Leonard Edelen’s previous faster marathon finishing.

Just prior to the forthcoming Olympics in Tokyo, Basil Heatley (Benjamin Basil Heatley) of the United Kingdom established a new world record as a competitor in the Polytechnic Marathon. He won in 2-13:55. The Olympics were only four months away and Bikila, who had been hardly competitive and impressive in 1963, was training hard for Tokyo! Even then, four to six weeks before the Olympics, Bikila’s troubling appendix was removed, the coach Niskanen fearsome that it might burst during the forthcoming Tokyo quest! The doctors assured Niskanen that Bikila’s slender build would enhance his chances to recover quickly and be well prepared for the Olympics. Indeed Bikila would return to training, two weeks after the appendectomy! At the Ethiopian Olympic trials, Bikila finished in a relatively impressive 2-16:18.8, beating Mamo Wolde by a second! Previously, on May 31st in a local marathon in Addis Ababa, Bikila had won in

In Tokyo at the 1964 Olympics, Sergeant Bikila was comfortably ahead and out-of-sight of the rest of the 68-man pack with more than 10 miles to go. Abebe had previously stayed close to the leading pack that was lead by Ron Clarke of Australia and Jim Hogan of Ireland. In the end, Bikila finished more than four minutes ahead of runner-up Basil Heatley (2-16:19.2); Ron Clarke was ninth; Mamo Wolde did not finish. After winning at the Olympics in Tokyo, in a new marathon world record time of 2-12:12.2, Bikila performed calisthenics, push-ups and sit-ups similar to what he did after the races. The 80000 spectators were amazed and amused. But it turned out that Bikila did this, not to show off, but in the belief that exercising after the races would reduce the probability of his body stiffening and cramping. In this race he wore shoes, and even long socks to keep him warm. “Abebe plodded into the stadium ahead of his nearest pursuers, and trotted once around. He raised his arms to break the tape, and then he ran over to the infield grass and flopped on his back and did some bicycle-like exercises with his legs in the air” (Associated Press; 1964).

Bikila would, throughout his international running career, be the subject of curiosity. Was his marathon running endurance associated with adaptation to high-altitude running that is associated with east African world record breaking athletes? What did he eat? Many measured such aspects. Many regard Bikila as the greatest marathoner, ever. He is also credited for halting the tradition of running with the pack and breaking away for the win near the end of the race. Bikila became the modern marathoner by running his own race, sometimes leaving the rest of the pack ahead or far behind instead of taking cues from them. Bikila became the first runner ever to win two Olympic marathon gold medals, the first African ever to win double gold at the Olympics. Perhaps with memories of his legendary world athletic status and notably his winning of the Osaka Marathon in 1961, and his familiar looks of a slender hollow-cheeked runner, Abebe Bikila had prior to the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics ranked by Japanese women as the foremost affectionate darling. As a Japan celebrity Abebe was comfortably ahead of much younger well-built figures like the 1964 Olympic heavyweight boxing champion and future legend Joseph “Joe” Frazier (USA) and Donald (“Don”) Arthur Schollander (USA) who won five gold and one silver medals in swimming at the same Olympics (Richman 1964: 14).

On May 9th 1965 Bikila competed in the Otsu Marathon, near Tokyo, and won. The following year he won in the Zarautz (Zarauz) Marathon in Barcelona, finishing in 2-20.28.8. On October 30th 1966 at the Seoul Marathon in South Korea, Bikila was the victor in 2-17.04. Apart from the Boston Marathon of 1963, Abebe Bikila had won in all the marathons that he competed in.

Bikila at 36 years of age did appear in Mexico City for the 1968 Olympics. Only days before the marathon in Mexico City, just before a training road run, Bikila expressed guarded confidence:

“Of course I expect to win here I have never felt better….Anything can happen in such a long race… I believe that if anyone can beat me, it will be one of my countrymen–Mamo Wolde or Marawi Gabru” (“Bikila Seeks Third Marathon” in Montreal Gazette: October 2, 1968). In the same vein, Bikila expressed that the high-altitude conditions, which simulated the conditions in his native Ethiopia would favor his team.

But ultimately a stress fracture would prevent Bikila from becoming impressive. He was ill in bed for four days before the starting of the race. He dropped out at about 6 miles into the marathon. Instead, friend and fellow team-mate Mamo Wolde (ironically also 36 years old) won–this establishing three consecutive Ethiopian wins in the marathon at the Olympics–an unprecedented national and international feat! Wolde finished in 2-20: 26.4, more than three minutes ahead of runner-up Kenji Kimihara of Japan. The other Ethiopian hope, Gabrou Merawi [Marawi Gabru] (also aged 36), was sixth.

But March 22nd 1969 would be a tragic one for Bikila. While driving at night in his Volkswagen Beetle, he swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle and his beetle rolled down a ditch. His sixth and seventh vertebrae became dislocated and Bikila became a quadriplegic. Despite all the medical attention, including that of Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England, Bikila was unable to use his legs again. He had some limited recreational and competitive success as an archer. Use of his fingers was limited, such that he stretched the bow with his wrist and held the bow with a custom-designed hook on his right hand. At the end of July 1969, a determined Bikila finished ninth in the Novice Archery Class at the Wheelchair Olympics. He was a guest at the 1972 Olympics in Munich where the gold medalist Frank Shorter acknowledged and honored him.

In 1973, Bikila just aged 41 died from a stroke-related brain hemorrhage. Many events, trophies and structures are named after Abebe Bikila. He became the first internationally recognized black African athlete that signaled the growing significance of African runners.

Summary of Abebe Bikila’s Major Performances

July 3rd 1960; (1st) in 2-39:50; Addis Ababa Marathon, Ethiopia.
August 7th 1960; (1st) in 2-21:23; Addis Ababa Marathon, Ethiopia.
September 10th 1960; (1st) in 2:15:17; Olympic gold medal and world record, Rome.
May 7th 1961; (1st) in 2-23:45; Athens Classical Marathon, Greece.
June 25th 1961; (1st) in 2-29:27; Mainichi Marathon, Osaka.
October 8th 1961; (1st) in 2-20:12; Kosice Marathon, Czechoslovakia.
April 19th 1963; (5th) in 2-24:43; Boston Marathon, USA.
May 31st 1964; (1st) in 2-23:14.8; Addis Ababa Marathon, Ethiopia.
August 3rd 1964; (1st) in 2-16:18.8 Ethiopian Olympic Trials, Addis Ababa.
October 21st 1964; (1st) in 2-12:11.2; Olympic gold medal and world record, Tokyo.
May 9th 1965; (1st) in 2-22:55.8; Otsu Marathon, Tokyo.
July 24th 1966; (1st) in 2-20:28.8 Zarauz Marathon, Spain.
October 30th 1966; (1st) in 2-17:04; Seoul Marathon; South Korea.

Works Cited

Associated Press (October 22, 1964). “Fastest Marathon Ever and Abebe Did Not Tire,” in “Calgary Herald.”

Montreal Gazette (October 2, 1968). “Bikila Seeks Third Marathon.”

Richman, Milton (October 27, 1964). “Skinny Ethiopian Toast of the Olympics,” in “The Deseret News.”

SI Vault (July 10, 1961). “A Roundup Of The Sports Information Of The Week.”

St. Joseph Gazette (May 8, 1961). “Ethiopian Runs Barefooted, Sets Marathon Mark.”

Underwood, John (April 12, 1965). “The Number Two Lion In The Land Of Sheba” in “SI Vault.”

Nicole Thomas

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