The Barefoot Running Hero: Abebe Bikila
Being the first man to win an olympic marathon twice is a feat. To finish your second winning marathon and stretch out, as if the run didn’t strain you, is a great crowd pleaser. To do it all while barefoot… That’s something else.
Hailing from the country of Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila was a last minute addition to Ethiopia’s marathon running team in 1960. Upon arriving in Rome, the Olympic’s shoe sponsor, Adidas, had no proper fitting shoes for him. So, he struck out like he had trained: barefoot.
Other runners scoffed at Bikila - a man hailing from a country which recently threw down the shackles of colonialism. Others expected him to give a paltry performance. He proved naysayers wrong and beat the 2nd place winner by 25 seconds.
Bikila would go on to win all his marathons, except for one in Boston, and broke the world record at the time at the 1964 Tokyo olympics. After passing the finish line, he began a routine of stretches and said that he could go for another 10 kilometers.
For winning, he was greeted with a hero’s welcome and received a car, courtesy of the Ethiopia.
Despite his good luck and hard work, a tragic car accident crippled Bikila in his 30s. Avoiding a student demonstration, he swerved and landed in a ditch, his car trapping him. It crippled his legs, and with it, his running career.
Bikila had wise words about his success and tragedy:
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.
Schools, other buildings and bridges stand in monument to Bikila. Vibram’s line of five-finger shoes are named after him. While American running culture becomes re-aquainted with barefoot running, it doesn’t have to look far to see barefoot runners can have a modern impact.