The Olympic Champion Who Ran Barefoot

91 years since the birth of the Olympic champion who ran barefoot

Abebe Bikila was originally a shepherd, but after walking 130 km to enlist in the army, he became the first black African Olympic champion - running the entire race barefoot

(Photo: from Wikimedia)

We are accustomed to hearing about athletes who worked hard to achieve success, but the story of Abebe Bikila is not an everyday story. Bikila was born on August 7, 1932, in the village of Jato, near the city of Mendida in Ethiopia. In his childhood, he was a shepherd, but like the admiral, his life's path was altered by his enlistment in the army.

In 1916, a revolution took place in Ethiopia when Emperor Lij Iyasu, who was the grandson of Menelek - the previous emperor - was deposed, and Menelik's daughter Zewditu was appointed under him. The one appointed regent and heir to the throne is Haile Selassie, who was Menelik's companion. Selassie is the de facto king, and has made many efforts to make Ethiopia more modern, when, among other things, he joined the country to the League of Nations, the former incarnation of the United Nations.

He continued Ethiopia's momentum when he initiated a constitution for Ethiopia, started working on establishing a modern army and developed the economy and education. Despite much opposition at home for appointing himself to the position and insulting the empress, Selassie ruled the country until 1936 when Mussolini's Italy invaded Ethiopia and occupied the country.

"Emperor of Jerusalem" Rents an Apartment in Rehavia

Haile Selassie fled to Israel, initially staying at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem before renting an apartment in Rehavia. He was registered as a resident of Rehavia, with his profession listed as "king." After three months in Jerusalem, he moved to England, where he stayed until returning to Ethiopia in 1941 with the assistance of the British, who recognized him as the Emperor of Ethiopia. Among other titles, he referred to himself as the "Emperor of Jerusalem."

11 years later, in 1952, Bikila decided to join the army of Selassie. As a result, the shepherd, now 20 years old, walked more than 130 kilometers to the capital city, Addis Ababa. During his military service, Bikila competed in jena (a sport similar to hockey) and athletics.

Haile Selassie (Photo: from Wikimedia)

Before the Rome Olympics in 1960, a Swedish coach named Oni Niskanen was appointed to recruit runners from Ethiopia. Even though today the African dominance in athletics is clear until that Olympics a runner from East Africa had never won an Olympic marathon. Two American runners and one white runner from South Africa were the only non-European gold medal winners.

Won the gold medal running barefoot

Bikila participated in the championship of the Ethiopian security forces and won first place when he caught Niskanen's eye who decided after one of the members of the delegation canceled his trip to Rome to add Bikila to the delegation. When they arrived in Rome, the members of the delegation went to an Adidas store to buy running shoes. After not finding suitable shoes for Bikila's flat feet, he decided to run barefoot.

Even without shoes, Bikila managed to astonish the world when he won the gold medal by improving the previous winner's time by no less than ten minutes and setting a new impressive record (then still unofficial, a world record). Throughout the race, he stayed close to his Moroccan rival, Rhadi Ben Abdesselam, and accelerated in the last kilometer on his way to the historic victory. Bikila flew to Rome completely unknown, but he was received as a national hero upon his return home.

Abebe Bikila is hoisted in celebrations in Rome (Photo: from Wikimedia)

After the victory, he said, "I did it to show the world that Ethiopia always wins with determination and bravery." Four years later, about a month before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Bikila suffered from an appendicitis. Despite the severe illness, shortly after recovering, he managed to win the gold medal again, beating Basil Heatley of Britain by more than four minutes. This time, Bikila set another "best performance" by running a time of 2:12:11 hours, wearing shoes.

Abebe Bikila died at the age of 41 due to complications from a car accident

The end of the story is less optimistic when in 1968 he broke his leg while running and couldn't defend his title. A year later, he suffered a severe injury in a car accident and was left mute in his legs. Bikila didn't give up on his goal, and he continued to compete in wheelchair races and other sports.

The complications from that accident led to a cerebral hemorrhage on October 25, 1973, when he was only 41 years old. The Emperor declared a national day of mourning, and he was buried in a state funeral with tens of thousands of people accompanying him on his final journey, honoring the one who had given hope to an entire continent.

Abebe Bikila receives the title of "Star of Ethiopia" from the emperor (Photo: from Wikimedia)

The national stadium in Addis Ababa is named after him. In Rome, the city where he won his first Olympic gold medal, his memory was also honored when they named a pedestrian bridge "Abebe Bikila Bridge" in the early 2000s. Nowadays, it's hard to imagine the sport of running without Ethiopian or Kenyan runners, and African countries have produced numerous Olympic legends. But the one who truly paved the way was originally a shepherd who ran barefoot.

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