Abebe Bikila was the athlete who won the first ever marathon gold medal for Africa setting a world and Olympic record after running the entire race barefoot on the streets of Rome at the 1960 Olympic Games. And he bested his own record at the subsequent 1964 Olympics in Tokyo to become the first athlete in the world to win back-to-back Olympic marathon titles.
He was little known outside of Ethiopia when he went to the 1960 Olympics in Rome to run the marathon barefoot on the cobblestones of the Appian Way. Tied for the lead for much of the race, he broke ahead in the last 1,000 meters and crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 15 minutes and 15.2 seconds.
Abebe’s first victory in Rome was the first ever marathon gold medal won by an African. The victory marked a great moment for Ethiopia and running became not only a national sport but also a national obsession in every corner of the country. With the whole country and arguably the world behind him as the favourite to win, Abebe went to the subsequent Olympics in Tokyo in 1964 to defend his marathon title – this time wearing shoes (Puma runners to be exact). Not only did he win the marathon again, he also won it by smashing his own record that he had set in Rome to also become the first athlete in the world to win back-to-back Olympic marathon titles. Abebe ran three minutes and 2.8 seconds faster in Tokyo than he did in Rome and his time was recorded at 2 hours, 12 minutes and 11.2 seconds.
His successive marathon victories made Ethiopia synonymous with athletics greatness and he single-headedly raised the country’s profile to a new level. Wherever in the world Ethiopians set foot, they get instant recognition as compatriots of Abebe Bikila – the great marathon runner who, in Rome, endured more than 42 kilometers of running without wearing shoes to claim victory setting a new Olympic and world record.
Abebe went to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City but was forced to drop out of the marathon with a broken leg after running for 10 miles. He died in 1973 at the age of 41 after a car accident in 1969 left him paralysed.