Great Moments in Olympic History: #9 Abebe Bikila

Nine more days, you guys. And 9 more great moments in Olympic history to go! I was thinking again last night about what makes the Olympic Games so wonderful, and I decided that it’s the promise that something of great magnitude is going to happen. An underdog story. A heroic feat. A historic meeting. The Games certainly fulfill their promise, time and time again. So without further ado…

Number 9 on our list, Abebe Bikila and the shoeless marathon:

Today’s great moment also comes from the 1960 Games in Rome (man, what a rockin’ time they had). As Time magazine tells it:

“It was 1960, Rome. Africa was just shrugging off the weight of colonial rule and some sporting officials still doubted Africans were ready for the big time. A little over 2 hr. 15 min. later that myth lay shattered by the slight man wearing number 11, a member of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard and a proud African whose gliding, barefoot run through Rome’s cobblestone streets announced his continent’s emergence as a running powerhouse.”

Nice setup, Time. Thank you.

That Ethiopian was Abebe Bikila, a shepherd’s son who worked as a “bodyguard” for the Emperor of Ethiopia. Sometime before the start of the 1960 Olympics, a man named Onni Niskanen was hired to coach Ethiopian athletes. At some point, Bilika caught Niskanen’s eye, and later, as the team plane was about to leave for Rome, Niskanen added Bikila to the marathon roster to replace another athlete who had gone down with an injury. Needless to say, there was little time to prepare.

Arriving at the marathon course, Bilika chose a pair of shoes from Games sponsor Adidas. But they didn’t fit right. New shoes that don’t fit to run a marathon? Not gonna fly. So, of course, Bilika did what any of us in that situation would do – he decided to run the entire 26.2 miles barefoot…and he won…in record time.

I think the amazing thing about this story is not that Bikila decided to go sans shoes. It’s that the reason he was so comfortable with the idea is because that’s how he had been training all along. Running marathons back in Africa, Bikila had never seen the need for shoes, and I would assume that the supply was not plentiful. And instead of choosing not to run because he lacked the equipment, he simply did without, and still came out on top.

Bikila again won a gold medal in the 1964 Games, and this time he was able to get a pair of shoes that fit. But his shoeless legend will live on for the ages.

The Olympics. Simply wonderful.

Editor’s Note: Check in tomorrow for Number 8 on our list, the Cold War and basketball…


Filed under BEST Things Ever, Wide World Of Sports

10 responses to “Great Moments in Olympic History: #9 Abebe Bikila

  1. dennycarroll

    I certainly hope that Kelly Carroll talking to Chris Mullin on Sarunas Marciulionis’ telephone at the 96 Atlanta Olympics makes the list !

    • Audrey Marie

      At the very least a recap of the moment and conversation has to make an appearance during this time of Olympic cheer. (I demand it!)

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