1960 – Abebe Bikila

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10-Sep-1960 – Rome Olympics – 2:15:16.2 – N/a (barefoot)
Date of birth: 7-Aug-1932 (died 25-Oct-1973 – aged 41)
Nationality: Ethiopian
World Record duration: 2 years, 5 months, 7 days
Olympic Record duration: 4 years, 1 month, 11 days

The athlete:                
Yes, barefoot. Abebe Bikila is arguably the best known athlete on this list, however there is much misinformation about him. One of the best sources for the truth about the man can be found in the book Bikila: Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian by Tim Judah. It was based on interviews with many of the key people involved with Bikila at the time, and is definitely recommended reading.

The first correction to make is that Bikila’s entry into the Olympics had been planned out long in advance. Bikila was inspired to take up distance running after witnessing the spectacle of the 1956 Olympics, and Onni Niskansen saw potential in him to represent Ethiopia at the next Olympics in Rome. The Swede had moved to Ethiopia many years previously, and first became involved with the Imperial Bodyguard as a sports instructor.

It was however some time before Bikila would compete in his first marathon. This happened in July 1960, where he won the Armed Forces Championship in 2:39:50. It was far slower than the marathon world record at the time, but he had beaten Wami Biratu who until then had been the fastest marathon runner in Ethiopia. The next challenge was the Olympic Trials, the top two securing their tickets to Rome.

Bikila dominated, cutting nearly twenty minutes off his personal best to win in 2:21:23. Second was Abebe Wakjira who came in at 2:30:26. This leads us to the next part of the legend, which is how Bikila would decide to run barefoot for the marathon. The running shoes that they brought to Rome were too worn out, so both Bikila and Wakjira decided to buy new shoes instead. There is no word on their brand, they may have been Adidas as quoted in some places but they may have not.

Either way, they ran a ten kilometre time trial in them and found they did not suit their feet. Bikila in particular got blisters from the relatively short run, so the decision was made to race the marathon barefoot. His training had been barefoot, and it can be assumed his previous marathons had also been run without shoes, so the decision was logical.

To dispell another myth, Bikila did not start the race in shoes and later discard them. He started and finished barefoot. This is confirmed by Wakjira who also started barefoot, saying the two hid away from competitors before the start as they were being mocked for their barefoot status. Another source was New Zealand runner Ray Puckett, who also remembered noticing that Bikila was not wearing shoes at the starting line.

Many commentators didn’t know what to make of him, but by the first 10 kilometres Bikila was with the lead pack. By 20 kilometres, his only competition was Rhadi ben Abdesselem. The pair crossed the halfway point in 1:06:40, which would also be the fastest time ever run barefoot over the half-marathon distance.

The pair kept putting space between themselves and the trailing pack, more than two minutes ahead by 30 kilometres. At 40 kilometres, Abdesselem surged into the lead, but Bikila responded. Although it is unclear whether he recognised the significance, this push occurred as the pair passed the Obelisco di Axum, stolen by Italian forces from Ethiopia in 1936. Wakjira didn’t even remember passing it on his way to the finish.

For Bikila, by the time another kilometre passed he was comfortably ahead. This was despite having to soon having to dodge around a scooter that had found its way onto the course. Incredibly, he did not realise he had been duelling with one of the race favourites, Abdesselem having kept the bib number he wore in the 10,000 metres. Bikila said had he known, he would have pushed even harder in the last few kilometres and probably have cut two minutes from his time.

Even with this confusion, when Bikila finished, he had not only won gold but set the new marathon world record of 2:15:16.2 . For this list, his benchmark is particularly important. Bikila answered the question of exactly how fast you can run the marathon without any shoes at all. Now we’re going to find out what types of shoes are needed to go even faster. For what happened next in Bikila’s athletics career, go here.

Bikila: Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian by Tim Judah