Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, barefoot marathoner and first black African Olympic champion

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On September 10, 1960, during the Olympic Games in Rome, during the marathon event, the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila neck-to-neck with the Moroccan Abdeslam Rhadi Ben Abdessalam, one of the great favorites of the event.

He has an insolent stride, a disconcerting relaxation, an extraordinary power. The young man is intriguing and his draw makes people laugh: who is this athlete with the thin mustache, sculpted cheeks and the haircut of a soul singer who is about to run without shoes on the Italian asphalt?

Of the seventy or so starters, not many people have heard of Abebe Bikila. This 28-year-old stranger should never have been lined up at the start of the Rome Olympic Games marathon in 1960. The Ethiopian owes his selection to a stroke of fate: he replaces his compatriot Wami Biratu, injured at the last minute.

This September 10, the favorites of the race are the Russians Konstantin Vorobyev and Sergei Popov or the Moroccan Abdesiem Rhadi Ben Abdesselem. But Bikila wants to believe in his lucky star. Wasn’t he born on August 7, 1932, the day of the Los Angeles Games marathon? What is more, in this kind of event, Olympic gold often smiles on the daring, and daring, this shepherd’s son has it under his heels.

Throughout the 42.195 km of the course, number 11, green bib, red shorts with yellow edging, short barefoot. This choice is not a whim. This featherweight (57 kg for 1.77 m) could have put on shoes, but they gave him blisters. In the country, Bikila used to walk alone, and without sneakers, the beaten earth and other gravel paths at 1000, 2000 or more than 3000 meters above sea level, where oxygen is precious. It is on these paths lined with eucalyptus that the Swedish trainer Onni Niskanen, in charge of Ethiopian athletes, noticed it.


The race is intense. The overwhelming heat. On the hot Rome night, marathon runners swallow the dusty asphalt, torchlit by soldiers of the Italian army. For several kilometers, the ordeal boils down to a “Mano a mano” between the Ethiopian and the Moroccan Abdesiem Rhadi Ben Abdesselem. Bikila, cooler, accelerates and attacks after the 41e km when passing the imposing obelisk of Axum.

The symbol is strong: in 1937, after his conquest of the Ethiopian Empire (whose partial occupation lasted only five years), Mussolini ordered that one of these columns which adorned the capital of the old kingdom. The monument was then placed in front of the Ministry for Africa, which after the fall of the Italian dictator became the seat of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

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Abebe Bikila, alone in the lead on this crowded road, beat the race in 2:15:16, a new world record. He is the first black African Olympic champion. But his victory has the value of revenge: this soldier of the imperial guard of the negus Hailé Sélassié gave his honor to his people, and to the continent, by crossing the finish line by conquering under the triumphal arch of Constantine d ‘ where, twenty-five years earlier, Mussolini’s fascist troops had left to invade his country. The marathon runner becomes a national hero.

His adventure at the Games is far from over. Four years later, in Tokyo, Bikila managed the feat of retaining his title after having just been operated on for appendicitis. It is the first time that a runner has won the Olympic marathon twice in a row. Despite a humidity level of 90%, and the thick mist covering the Japanese capital, the Ethiopian, who left favorite sneakers on this time, outclassed his opponents and smashed the world record in 2:12. ’11 ”. The second arrives four minutes later.


On his arrival at the Olympic stadium, Bikila offers a surreal scene to the 80,000 spectators. As soon as the line is crossed, the runner, who is barely sweating, stands on his side, hops, stretches his arms and legs as if he were still warming up. The referees try to talk to him, he throws himself on the lawn to continue his flexibility exercises on the back.

Four years later, at the Mexico Games, the 36-year-old former soldier started his third Olympic marathon. On the way to a hat-trick? Unfortunately, he had to give up after a few kilometers, hampered by an old injury. It was his compatriot Mamo Wolde who won the event (2h20”26 ‘).

In 1969, he was the victim of a serious car accident and lost the use of his legs. Far from being discouraged, he continues, even in a wheelchair, to practice sport, especially archery. He died in 1973 of a cerebral hemorrhage. But, for posterity, Abebe Bikila remains the one who paved the way for the unchallenged domination of long-distance runners from East Africa.

Summary of our series “These Africans who made the Olympics”