07 April 2009

Abebe Bikila - The Barefoot Runner

I've been doing a bit more reading these days. I've been busing to and from work for about a year now (thanks to the astronomical fuel prices last year and a flash new bus way beside the the motorway which means we can just fly past all the other traffic). This gives me 45 minutes or so of spare time each way so I thought I could make good use of that time by doing some more reading.

I picked up a book titled "Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila" from our local library which tells the story of the legendary Ethiopian distance runner Abebe Bikila. For those that don't know the name, Bikila was the first African to win an Olympic medal when he won the Marathon at Rome in 1960. Not only did Bikila win in world record time of 2:15:17 but he raced barefoot due to his inability to find a fitting shoe in the Olympic village prior to the race. Running barefoot was not new to Bikila having grown up running barefoot in the Ethiopian highlands.

Bikila's hero status was further enhanced when became the first athlete (and only second ever) to successfully ever defend his Olympic Marathon title when he won in Tokyo, four years later in a time of 2:12:12. The remarkable thing about this race was that he was able to win merely six weeks after undergoing an appendix operation.

Bikila almost went on to complete what would have been an even more remarkable hat trick of Olympic Marathon victories in Mexico in 1968. Sadly he withdrew with a knee injury at about the 17 km mark, while leading the race. In a nice touch his long time friend and mentor Mamo Wolde went on to win Gold that day thus continuing that Ethiopia's stranglehold on the Olympic Marathon.

Tragically Bikila was paralysed in a car accident in 1969 and was confined to a wheel chair until he died in 1973.

The book goes to some lengths to also cover Bikila's relationship with his coach, Onni Niskanen originally from Sweden, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, as well as political tensions, coup attempts, civil unrest and the disorder leading to the Emperors downfall in 1969.

I was slightly amusing when reading the reviews on Amazon. It seems that the author may have used a fair degree of poetic license to describe many of the events that took place, but never the less if nothing else the book gives a good account of Bikila's two Olympic Golds and his attempted third.

Bikila undoubtedly paved the way for the many talented African runners that would follow in his footsteps.


Chad in the AZ Desert April 8, 2009 at 11:39 AM  

It is a very interesting story. If I tried to read on a bus, though, I would probably yack all over someone from the motion.

Ewen April 9, 2009 at 9:27 PM  

Interestingly he was wearing shoes when he won in Tokyo. Definitely ahead of his time. Not sure after reading the reviews - maybe I'll try one of the other books!

By the way petrol hit a low of $1.03 a litre this week, but back up to $1.18 for the long weekend :(

robtherunner April 10, 2009 at 2:07 PM  

Nice way to spend your time on the way to work. I wish I had a few more hours each day to do some reading.

Thomas April 12, 2009 at 11:07 PM  

Barefoot running fanatics keep pointing out Bikila as their shining light. What they usually don't tell you is that he only ran barefoot in Rome because of a shoe dispute, and that he ran a good bit faster in Tokyo, this time with shoes.

Aaron April 13, 2009 at 7:41 PM  

Thanks for the review - I'm going to have to look out for this at my local library :)

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