“I wanted the world to know that my country Ethiopia has always won with determination and heroism.” Abebe Bikila
Rome has been rewarded the Olympic Games of 1908, but an eruption of the Vesuvius in 1906 obligated the Italian capital to skip the event in favour of London. Its time would come again, when it was selected to host the Olympics of 1960, taking them back to the very same place where they had been forbidden by Emperor Theodosius in 393.
The Games were very well received in Rome, with unprecedented crowds, being the first to be broadcasted. A young boxer called Cassius Clay won a gold Olympic medal, and sadly there was the first known Olympic death for using performing enhancing drugs (the Danish Enemark Jensen).
Abebe Bikila was born in Jatta, Ethiopia, in 1932 on the same day Argentinian Juan Carlos Zabala won the Los Angeles Olympics marathon. Of humble origin he worked very young herding cattle. On a trip to the capital Addis Ababa when he was 19, was impressed with the Imperial Guard and enlisted.
Naturally gifted he started soon competing with the armed forces team in the 5000 and 10000 meters, running his first marathon only in 1959. Under Finnish coach Onni Niskanen he won the marathon trial one month before the Olympic Games. His time of 2.21.23 at Addis Ababa´s altitude (2400m) was better than the one achieved by defending Olympic champion Alain Mimoun at sea level (2.25.00).
The Olympic marathon was scheduled for September 10. The triangular course didn´t start nor finish in the Olympic stadium, but in Campidoglio and the Arch of Constantine respectively, just in the city centre. Expecting warm weather, the start was delayed until 17.30 for the 59 runners present. Hundreds of torchbearers on both sides of the road were ready to provide illumination when dark.
A large leading group of athletes was still together by the 10k (31.07). Everyone seemed cautious because it was still warm and the difficulty of the course, that forced them to dash around monuments and plazas.
By the 20k (1.02.39) a barefoot Ethiopian, Bikila, was in front accompanied by Moroccan Rhadi ben Abdesselem, totally unknow besides his participation in the 10000 metres a couple days earlier and debuting in the marathon. Half a minute behind was Belgian champion Aurele Vandendriessche.
The front African duo continued increasing distance with their pursuers. At 30k (1.34.29) they had opened a 2-minutes gap over Barry Magee from New Zealand, and the soviet and world-record holder Sergey Popov.
At 40k (2.08.33), and already heading towards the finish line, Magee´s pace had brought him only 86 seconds behind the front runners. Behind him soviet marathon champion Konstantin Vorobiev had overtaken his comrade Popov.
It was time to fight for victory, as the race was nearing its conclusion. First Rhadi tried to move away from Bikila but failed. When reaching the Obelisco di Axum, in Piazza di Porta Capena, that has been brought from Ethiopia by the Italians in 1936, Bikila attacked. He knew that it was only 500 metres from the finish line, and Rhadi was unable to fight back. The gold medal was for Bikila in 2.15.16, improving the world record of Popov by just 1 second. 25 seconds behind entered Rhadi, for Morocco, with New Zealand´s Maggie getting the bronze medal.
The quality of the race was impressive, as 15 finishers managed to complete the marathon under Zátopek´s record of 2.23.03 established in Helsinki only four years earlier. African countries had demonstrated for the first time their quality in the marathon, allocating 4 of the top-8 finishers and changing the marathon trend that had gone until then.
As for Bikila he became instantly a hero in Ethiopia. His history was far from over as we will see in our next entry, dedicated to the Olympic Games of Tokyo in 1964, where he became the first athlete to revalidate his marathon Olympic title. But that is another story.
“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.