The Summer Olympics does more than gather the world’s best athletes and places them upon a grand stage. It is also a collective of individual feats and heroics that often propels a nation and the winning athletes into the annals of history. One such hero is Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics marathon event barefoot.
Born August 7, 1932 in Jato, Ethiopia, Abebe, a son of a shepherd, left home and headed to his country’s capital of Addis Ababa to work as a Royal Family bodyguard. Ethiopia wanted to place its hat in the Olympic ring and hired Finnish-Swede trainer Maj. Onni Niskanen to develop athletes. Abebe caught the eye of Niskanen and he began training in the marathon event.
Abebe trained barefoot in the grueling 26-mile event and often on tracks that weren’t up to standards but was selected to represent his country in the Rome Summer Games as a replacement. Upon arriving at the event, Adidas, a sponsor of the event, had shoes for runners but none properly fit Abebe. It was then he decided to run the race as he’d trained for it.
Without shoes, Abebe easily claimed the gold medal. When asked why he did so, he simply replied that he wanted to show the determination of his countrymen. Four years later, Abebe captured gold in the event once more, but this time wearing shoes.
Tragedy visited Abebe in 1969 after a car accident left him paraplegic. He began taking up archery, but never really competed on an elite level. Sadly, Abebe’s injuries proved to be catastrophic and he succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage connected to his injuries in 1973. He was 41, survived by his wife and four children.
Abebe has been honored many times and has a stadium named after him in Ethiopia.
PHOTO: Public Domain