THE PIONEER OF EAST AFRICAN RUNNING
In 1960, Abebe Bikila, a young Ethiopian, left an indelible mark on the world of athletics. Competing at the Rome Olympics, he not only became the first black African to clinch the Olympic marathon gold medal but did so running barefoot - a testament to his extraordinary talent and determination.
Born in the mountainous region of Debre Bihan, Bikila's early years were spent herding cattle. However, a trip to Addis Ababa changed his life trajectory forever. Inspired by the rigorous training of the Body Guard Forces, he joined the Imperial Body Guard at 19, where his natural running ability quickly surfaced.
Under the guidance of Swedish coach Onni Niskanen, Bikila's prowess in running blossomed. His marathon debut in 1959, where he triumphed at an altitude of over 2400m, foreshadowed the greatness that lay ahead.
Rome presented an unexpected challenge as Bikila's shoes disintegrated just before the race. Undeterred, he ran barefoot through the historic streets of the city. At the 10km mark, Bikila was among the leaders, alongside the Moroccan Rhadi ben Abdesselem.
As the race unfolded, Bikila and Abdesselem surged ahead, showcasing their dominance. By the 35km mark, they held a lead of over two minutes, setting the stage for a historic finish.
In the final stretch, Bikila made his move, securing a world and Olympic record of 2:15:16.2. This triumph marked the beginning of a legendary career.
Bikila returned in 1964, this time with shoes, to successfully defend his Olympic title in Tokyo, setting a world record. His influence on distance running was immeasurable, inspiring generations of East African athletes.
Tragically, a car accident in 1969 left him paralysed, and he passed away in 1973. However, his legacy endures through the enduring dominance of East African distance runners.
Abebe Bikila's story is one of extraordinary talent, resilience, and lasting impact. His footsteps continue to resonate through the tracks, trails, and roads of East Africa.