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Honoring Bikila – The man who changed the world on Olympic Marathon Day

By Staff | Aug 26, 2016

In 1960 Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia became the first Olympic Champion from Sub-Saharan Africa and the first to win the race barefoot. Over the last 50 plus years the East Africans have dominated distance running. Today Kenyan Eluid Kipchoge and Ethiopian Feyisa Lelisa took Gold and Silver but pressed by the courageous running of U.S. Galen Rupp who took the Bronze.

More amazing on the U.S. side was school teacher Jared Ward, not part of Team Nike, taking 6th. Meb Keflezighi at age 41 had a rare off day finishing 33rd in 2:16, but in Bikila style he did three pushups at the finish after a slip. After his marathon wins Bikila would spontaneously break out into Callisthenic routines.

Bikila’s victory in Rome was the triumph of a small country over the regime which had marched in and occupied in World War II. Although neither Italy nor Ethiopia were still under fascist rule, the legacy of the 1936 occupation was still present and Bikila’s triumph under the Arch of Constantine was a victory for the modern Olympic movement of friendship through sport.

Bikila repeated his marathon Gold in Tokyo in 1964, a little over month after having an operation for acute appendicitis which left him minimally able to train. Not expected to even run in Tokyo, Bikila not only won but set the Olympic record of 2:12 and became the only runner to win two Olympic Marathons, a feat not equaled since his time. In 1968 Bikila lined up in Mexico City with a fractured foot and was unable to complete the race. He is recognized as one of the greatest Olympians of all time.

Tragically Abebe Bikila was the victim of a tragic auto accident in 1969 while swerving to avoid hitting traffic during political protest at this unstable time. The accident left him quadriplegic. He regained the use of his arms enough to participate in the early movement of sports for people with disability. He died too young at age 41 in 1973 as a complication of the injuries from the accident. His funeral was attended by over 70,000 of his people. The New York Road Runners award the prestigious Abebe Bikila award for exemplary contribution to distance running.

Sadly violence and protest are still common in Bikila’s homeland. The silver medalist made a gesture of solidarity at the finish line today which puts his life at risk on return home.