Abebe BIKILA

Ethiopian athlete BIKILA, a true trailblazer, paved the way for African athletes in long-distance running and became the first athlete to win two gold medals in the marathon.

"I wanted the world to know that my country Ethiopia has always won with determination and heroism," Bikila proudly declared. Abebe Bikila 

Abebe BIKILA en uniforme de la garde impériale de Hailé SELASSIE, circa 1950 © Comité International Olympique (CIO) (1950) by Comité International Olympique (CIO)The Olympic Museum

Abebe BIKILA

BIKILA, born on 7 August 1932, on the day of the marathon event at the Los Angeles Olympics, was a skilled swimmer and horse rider who joined Emperor Hailé SELASSIE's Imperial Guard. Spotted by Scandinavian coach Onni NISKANEN, Bikila was called up at the last minute to participate in the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Onni Niskanen et Abebe Bikila pendant un entraînement en Ethiopie, circa 1959 (1959) by Comité International Olympique (CIO)The Olympic Museum

Onni NISKANEN, the architect of BIKILA's success

The Swedish coach, tasked with developing physical education in Ethiopia, encouraged BIKILA to play other sports to strengthen his athletic abilities. Together, they would dazzle the world of running, leaving an indelible mark on the track.

Sculpture en métal doré avec sur le socle une plaquette avec la légende gravée : "Cast of a legend Abebe Bikila Olympic champion marathon 1960 and 1964 presented by the ASICS Corporation". (1960) by Comité International Olympique (CIO)The Olympic Museum

Rome 1960

BIKILA's selection for the national team, however, came as a surprise, and upon arriving in Rome, he couldn't find shoes in his size. An ill-fitting pair gave him a huge blister . As a result, he chose to run barefoot, just as he usually did during training.

Plan du marathon des JO de Rome avec le tracé, le départ du Capitole, et l'arrivée par la Via Appia, passant par des lieux antiques célèbres (1960) by Collections Culture et Patrimoine du CIO – Archives historiquesThe Olympic Museum

Rome 1960

At the 41st kilometre, at the foot of the Axum Obelisk, pillaged by Mussolini's troops 25 years earlier during the occupation of Ethiopia, BIKILA unleashed his final surge of speed and won his first marathon !

Rome 1960 – Marathon Hommes, Abebe BIKILA (ETH) 1er (1960) by Comité International Olympique (CIO)The Olympic Museum

Rome 1960 – the barefoot marathoner

Initially, BIKILA ran with the pack , only joining the leaders at the 15th kilometre. Then began a thrilling " mano a mano " battle with Morocco's Abdesiem Rhadi BEN ABDESSELEM. BIKILA managed to distance himself from his opponent and set a new world record of 2 hours, 15 minutes and 16 seconds, all while running barefoot !

Tokyo 1964 – Marathon Hommes, arrivée d’Abebe BIKILA (ETH) 1er (1964) by Comité International Olympique (CIO)The Olympic Museum

Tokyo 1964

Having undergone an appendectomy a month earlier, BIKILA repeated his feat and secured his second gold medal in the marathon. This time, wearing shoes, he crossed the finish line in an astonishing time of 2 hours, 12 minutes and 11 seconds, with a four-minute lead over the runner-up. This double victory marked an unprecedented achievement in Olympic history.    

Mexico 1968, Marathon Hommes – Entraînement d’Abebe BIKILA (ETH). (1968) by Comité International Olympique (CIO)The Olympic Museum

Mexico 1968

In 1967 a fractured fibula prevented Bikila from properly preparing for the 1968 Olympic marathon. He dropped out of the race 15 kilometres in. His compatriot, Mamo WOLDE, claimed the top spot on the podium.

20 juillet 1970 : Abebe BIKILA (ETH) s'entraîne au tir à l'arc depuis son fauteuil roulant en vue des 19e Jeux internationaux de Stoke Mandeville, le précurseur des Jeux paralympiques, dans le Buckinghamshire. (1970) by Getty ImagesThe Olympic Museum

Tragedy strikes

In March 1969, while driving his Beetle, a gift from the emperor following his Olympic successes, BIKILA was involved in a horrific car accident that tragically resulted in the loss of use of his legs. In 1970, his competitive spirit undiminished, Bikila took part in a few wheelchair racing and archery competitions.

" I have accepted these victories as I accept this tragedy. I must embrace both circumstances as facts of life and find happiness. " A. BIKILA

Munich 1972 - Abebe BIKILA. (1972) by Comité International Olympique (CIO)The Olympic Museum

Munich 1972

As a mere spectator at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, BIKILA received a standing ovation from the crowd.
The following year he passed away due to a brain haemorrhage.
In the film Marathon Man (1976) starring Dustin Hoffman, BIKILA was a source of inspiration for the protagonist.

Credits: Story

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