Bikila in 1968



Men of success meet with tragedy. It was the will of God that I won the Olympics, and it was the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily.”


Abebe Bikila

As it happened with Rome, Tokyo had already been chosen to host other Olympics earlier, the ones in 1940, but WWII prevented them. Competing with Brussels, Vienna and Detroit Tokyo was awarded the 1964 Games, carrying out an impressive reconstruction and organisational effort.

The latest technology was used: these were the first Olympics with automatic timing and satellite television. Among other curiosities South Africa was suspended because of its apartheid policy, and they saw the first brand war between rival shoe brands Puma and Adidas.

Japan decided to organize an international marathon on the race course one year in advance, where many of the top world marathoners participated. Victory was for New Zealand´s athlete Julian Kilby (2.18.00).

Regarding Bikila, he mostly disappeared from the athletics scene after his victory in Rome. He only competed in the 1963 Boston marathon, where he managed to finish 5th. In the Ethiopian trial marathon, he won in 2.16.18, only 0.4 seconds ahead of his countryman Mamo Wolde, becoming one of the top contenders for victory.

The Olympic marathon was planned for October 21st over a flat course that began and finished in the National Stadium built for the occasion. As a typical autumn day, it was cloudy and humid. The starting field was formed by 68 athletes, and Abebe Bikila was also there shortly after having his appendix removed in mid-September. He had spent a whole week in hospital but seemed recovered enough.

Australian Ron Clarke started aggressively trying to prove himself after his previous defeats in the 10000 and 5000 metres a few days earlier. By the 10k (30.14) Clarke was still in front followed by the Irish Jim Hogan and Bikila, who had started the race cautiously. The small group started falling apart soon. Bikila crossed the 20k in 1.00.58, 5s ahead of Hogan, while Clarke has fallen to third and was pressed by Kokichi Tsuburaya (Japan), József Sütö (Hungary) and Demissie Wolde (Ethiopia).

By the 30k Bikila had opened a gap of 40s with Hogan, himself with 29s of advantage over Tsuburaya and Sütö, just meters behind. Trying to keep close to Bikila had its consequences on Hogan, who retired shortly after the 35k totally exhausted. Nobody seemed able to reach Bikila. His closest opponents were now Tsuburaya, who in the 40k was almost 3 minutes behind, and the British Brian Kilby and Basil Heatley.

Bikila won the race in an astounding 2.12.11, to revalidate his Olympic title and break the world and Olympic records in the process. And he didn´t seem tired, as he started doing some exercises while waiting for his opponents. Local runner Tsuburaya entered the stadium in second position as the spectators thought he would get the silver medal, but a final push by Heatley gave him the second position and relegated Tsuburaya to third. The victory margin from Bikila was more than 4 minutes!!!

Bikila continued running and winning marathons the following years. His sight was on competing in the Olympic Games of 1968 in Mexico, where he would be 36. In 1967 he suffered a hamstring injury in Spain, from which he never fully recovered. Despite it, he was still a favourite for victory when arriving to Mexico in 1968. Unfortunately, just one week before the Olympic race he felt a pain in his leg. It turned to be a stress fracture and was advised to avoid running until marathon day. It wasn´t enough recovery, and he had to abandon the marathon after 15 kilometres.

It would be his last marathon appearance. In 1969 he had a car accident and became quadriplegic. Fortunately, after 8 months of treatment he was able to regain use of his arms, although he was unable to walk again. He had won all but one of the 13 marathons he had completed during his running career.

But his will was strong, and in 1970 he started practicing table tennis and archery and competed in the Stoke Mandeville Games (a precursor of the Paralympic Games). During the Olympics of 1972 in Munich he was guest of honour, receiving a standing ovation during the opening ceremony. He would die one year later, at 41, from a complication of his injuries four years earlier.

Bikila’s legend has perdured until today, as he is the only marathoner capable of winning an Olympic gold medal twice. Next year, in Tokyo Olympics again, Eliud Kipchoge will try the same achievement and revalidate his victory in Rio in 2016. It will be an event to watch. Unfortunately, it won´t happen in Tokyo itself, as the marathon event has been moved to Sapporo.



“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.

Bikila celebrating his Olympic victory
Tokyo 1964 Olympics logo

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