Abebe Bikila

Death of Abebe Bikila

August 7, 1932 - October 25, 1973
| Age 41

First black African to win an Olympic medal, and the first man ever to win two Olympic marathons


Abebe Bikila, the son of a shepherd, was born on August 7, 1932, in the village of Jato: in the mountains of Ethiopia.

To support his family, Bikila became a private in the army and as part of his training, he was sent to a camp that the government had set up after World War II. At the camp, Onni Niskanen, who was hired by the Ethiopian government to train potential athletes, recognized Bikila's talent and started trailing him and others, in the 6,000-foot high mountains, where Bikila often ran barefoot.

Bikila won his first marathon in Ethiopia's capital city of Addis Ababa in July 1960. In August, Bikila ran a second marathon in Addis Ababa. The fact that both marathons were run at a high altitude, only a month apart, and Bikila finished even faster the second time, impressed Niskanen. When another Ethiopian athlete became injuried, Nishanen entered Bikila in the Olympic marathon, held that same year, in Rome.

In Rome, Sergie Popov of the Soviet Union, who held the world record, was expected to win. For the first time ever, it would be run at night, in the Campidoglio, a square designed by Michelangelo, on Capitoline Hill, and wound through Rome. The later section of the race would be run in the dark, with the route lit by Roman soldiers holding torches, on a road built by the ancient Romans thousands of years ago. Bikila would run the entire marathon bare foot. Bikila tried to wear a pair of Adidas shoes, but he ended up with a pair that did not fit comfortably, so he decided to run without the shoes.

At the beginning of the race, Bikila was one of four runners in the front. By the16th mile, Bikila and Rhadi Ben Abdesselam from Morocco were in front. A little more than a mile from the finish, Bikila saw an Ethiopia statue known as the Obelisk of Axumtaken, taken by Italian troops during World War II, and made his move. Bidila kept the lead, beat Rhadi by 25 seconds, and won the gold medal with a finishing time of 2:15:16.2. This beat Popov's previous world record by eight tenths of a second, and beat the Olympic record for the marathon by almost 8 minutes.

Bikila's gold medal was the first Olympic medal won by a black African. Bikila achieved instant fame around the world. Bikila returned to Ethiopia as a hero. Emperor Haile Selassie promoted him to the rank of corporal and awarded him the Star of Ethiopia.

In 1961, Bikila won marathons in Greece, Japan, and Czechoslovakia, then did not compete in any international marathon until the 1963 Boston Marathon where he finished in 5th place.

On August 3, 1964, the Ethiopian Olympic trials took place in Addis Ababa. Bikila won the race by only four-tenths of a second over Mamo Wolde, with the third place finisher, Demissie Wolde, only three seconds behind. Ethiopa had three world-class marathon runners.

40 days prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Abebe Bikila underwent surgery for appendicitis.

Bikila was not expected to compete in Tokyo, but he did enter the marathon; this time wearing shoes. He finished the marathon in a new record time of 2:12:11:2, 4 minutes and 8 seconds in front of silver medalist Basil Heatley of Great Britain, becoming the first athlete in history to win the Olympic marathon twice. Bikila seemingly effortless running ability has been mentioned by many authors.

In 1965 and 1966, Bikila ran three marathons and won them all. An injury had forced him to drop out of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Bikila would never compete again.

Emperor Haile Selassie gave him a promotion to captain. In 1969, in a car accident in Addis Ababa, Bikila was paralyzed from the waist down. Bikila turned to paraplegic sports, focusing on archery. He never walked again.

In 1973 Bikila died in Addis Ababa at age 41 from brain hemorrhage, a complication related to the accident four years earlier. Emperor Haile Selassie proclaimed a national day of mourning in honor of Bikila. Bikila's career included twelve marathon victories. He left behind his wife and four children. A stadium in Addis Ababa was named in his honour. In August 2005, an Oromo school was erected in Bikila's honor a few hundred yards from the remains of the village of Jato.