A Brief History
On September 10, 1960, the final event of the Summer Olympics held in Rome, Italy, was the scene of the first Sub-Saharan African (Black) to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won the prestigious Olympic Marathon race (about 26.2 miles long) and won it in high fashion, that is, barefoot!
Only 126 lbs, this slim 5’11” runner was 28 years old when he ran his historic race, and for good measure he won the Olympic Gold Medal in the Marathon in the 1964 Olympics as well. The course of events that led to Bikila’s historic performance makes for a good background story. The only reason he even went to Rome to compete was because another Ethiopian runner had taken ill and Bikila was a last minute substitute. On top of that, because of the late addition to the team, running shoe company Adidas that sponsored the Olympics did not have shoes for Bikila that fit properly, which is why he ran barefoot. He won in record time by a 25 second margin.
In the 1964 Olympics Bikila competed as the reigning champion and would not surprise anyone this time. Between his Olympic Gold Medal performances, Bikila won every Marathon he ran except a disappointing 5th place in the 1963 Boston Marathon. In fact, Boston was the only Marathon Bikila ran (completed) in his career that he did not win.
Disaster nearly struck 40 days before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when Bikila came down with appendicitis and required surgery. Though he traveled to Tokyo, he was not expected to run. Bikila did choose to run, and won his second Olympic Gold Medal, once again setting a new record, while becoming the first man to win a second Olympic Marathon. His emperor, Haile Selassie, presented Bakila with a brand new Volkswagen Beetle. No kidding.
In 1968 disaster did indeed strike, and Bikila had to pull out of the Olympic Marathon due to injury to his knee. It seems he had earlier broken a bone in his foot as well. In 1969 an even bigger disaster struck when Bikila swerved his Volkswagen to avoid protesters in the roadway. He wrecked his car and became a quadriplegic from his injuries. In 1973 Bikila died at age 41 of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving a legacy of excellence by Sub-Saharan (Black) African long distance runners to follow.
Of course, Black African athletes had won Olympic Gold Medals before Bikila, but not representing an African nation. African-Americans such as Jesse Owens had won Olympic Gold, but Bikila was the first to bring his medal back to Africa. Since Bikila’s heroics, Olympic Marathons have been won by athletes from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, and twice Ethiopian women have won the Olympic Marathon.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other Sub-Saharan African athletes can you think of that have achieved greatness? Please tell us your favorites in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Judah, Tim. Bikila: Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian. Reportage Press, 2009.
Rambali, Paul. Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila. Serpent’s Tail, 2007.