FIRST AFRICAN STEPS/OG 1960: Abebe BIKILA “The barefooted emperor “
1960; first stages of African independence. Year zero of African sport, at least on the international scene. Abebe Bikila chosed this date to hit hard at the Olympics. By brilliantly winning the marathon event, the barefooted runner had strictly respected the instructions from his Finish born Swedish coach Onni Niskanen: that is, not to accelerate within the first 30 kilometres and should have an eye fixed on his main rivals, amongst who was Morocco’s Abdesslam Rhadi. The latter is even the only person to have followed the rhythm imposed by the man from Addis Ababa. At the door steps of the Olympic stadium in Rome, Bikila distanced the rest of the athletes before crossing the finish line in front of an excited crowd full of ecstasy. Abebe relegated his immediate rival by more than 30seconds. It was the start of a formidable adventure. Four years later, in Tokyo, the Ethiopian was expected at the final bend. Expected by his coach who selected him despite just recovering from an appendix surgery weeks ago. He was equally expected by the press who were eyeing an historic double. He was even more expected by his anxious but revengeful opponents. The Ethiopian sergeant finally answered present to the glorious rendez vous of glory. In a crazy race, he relegated second paced British athlete, Basil Heatleyn, by 4’ 08”! On that day, the Japanese public already marveled and excited by the ease with which the African victory came, was once more on its feet when they saw the Olympic champion was jogging as if he was ready for another marathon race. In four years, the barefooted runner, whose heart used to beat at n45 pulsations minutes at rest, had become, a fantastic legend for athletes all over the world and undoubtedly the first hero of modern Africa. Years after a deserved retirement, Abebe Bikila is hit by a terrible tragedy. He lost his most precious asset, his legs, in a car accident. When he died in 1973, at the age of 41, the Ethiopian people paid him homage.
Bikila liked running barefooted and that aspect of his remained printed in memories. His trainer Niskanen precisely explained at that time the choice of Haile Selassie’s former guard: “he runs barefooted, because, his style is softer and more natural. He puts on shoes only when he risks to be injured by the ground. But when he puts on shoes, he is not relaxed. The rest doesn’t bother him, because he is used to, being barefooted, the souls of his feet have strengthened and he feels no pain.”
Born on the 8 August 1932 in Jato, Ethiopia
Died in 1973
1m76, 58 kg
Olympic medals: marathon: won gold in 1960 and 1964