Remembering Bikila’s 1960 Olympic marathon victory on its 60th anniversary

Abebe Bikila wins the marathon at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome (Getty Images)

It remains, arguably, one of the most significant landmark moments in our sport.

When Abebe Bikila – running barefoot – became the first black African to win an Olympic marathon gold medal on the streets of Rome it was without doubt one of the most iconic moments of the 1960 Games.

Yet beyond the isolation of this magical moment in athletics history, Bikila’s legacy can be felt on the tracks, cross country trails and roads across the planet thanks to the East African endurance running explosion.

From Keino to Bayi, from Rono to Ngugi, Tulu to Dibaba, Tergat to Gebrselassie and Bekele to Kipchoge, the East African legends have lit up the sport for the past six decades. 

Yet all owe a debt of gratitude to Bikila, the first global East African champion who made everything that followed a possibility.

Takes Up Running At 19

Born in Jatta in the mountainous region of Debre Bihan – coincidentally on the same day that Argentina’s Juan Zabala won 1932 Olympic marathon gold at the Los Angeles Games – Bikila grew up in a rural environment. Working as a cattle herder, it was on a trip to the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa as a teenager which was to change the whole direction of his life.

Visiting the Imperial Palace – where he saw the Body Guard Forces in training – he was impressed. Aged 19 he applied to join the Imperial Body Guard and was accepted.

All the guards were encouraged to pursue vigorous physical exercise and Bikila quickly discovered a natural ability to run. He initially featured as a 5000m and 10,000m runner before making his marathon debut as part of the 1959 Military Forces Day Celebrations in Addis Ababa.

Identified as a future talent by Swedish coach Onni Niskanen, Ethiopia’s then Director of Athletics, Bikila was given a structured training programme and just one month before the Olympic Games he won the Ethiopian Marathon Trials in Addis Ababa.

His performance was impressive. Despite competing at an altitude of more than 2400m, the slender Ethiopian raced to victory in 2:21:23 – a time faster than the Olympic record.

The performance booked Bikila a place on the Ethiopian team for Rome and he headed to the Italian capital an inexperienced, although quality athlete.

Running Barefoot, A Legend Is Born

Under Niskanen’s tutelage he had trained in Ethiopia both with and without shoes. However, in the final days of preparation for the Games in Rome his shoes fell apart. He went to a local shoe store but after picking up a pair shoes which gave him blisters, he opted to run barefoot for the biggest race of his career. 

In a course which took in many of the iconic sights of the city of Rome, the race started at 5.30pm in an effort to avoid the worst of the heat. Scheduled to finish after sunset – hundreds of Italian soldiers lit the course with torches.

Even with the late start, however, the field of 69 athletes from 35 countries took to the start line at the Piazza de Campidoglio – the most sacred of Rome’s seven hills – facing a temperature of 23C.

Read more at: World Athletics