Profile Born in 1932 in Mout, Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila won Olympic gold in the marathon at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. His time was a world best of 2:15:16 and he ran the race barefoot. Four years later Bikila repeated this feat but this time he wore proper running shoes. His time of 2:12:11 was again a world best. Bikila still had enough energy to perform joyous acrobatics at the end of the race as many other finishers were collapsing all around him.
Bikila spent much of his youth in Ethiopia as a shepherd but was recruited by the Imperial Guard unit. It was while serving in the Guards, at a parade in honour of Ethiopian athletes returning from the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, that he decided he wanted to become one of them. He soon entered the national armed forces championship and shocked local star Wami Biratu by winning the marathon. Later, following his Olympic victory in 1960, he was asked why he ran the race barefoot. “I wanted the world to know that my country Ethiopia has always won with determination and heroism,” he replied.
Bikila’s successful defence of his Olympic marathon title four years later was even more remarkable as barely six weeks before the Games he had suffered from appendicitis and had to undergo surgery. Bikila could barely walk down a flight of stairs when he first arrived in Tokyo, the host city. His gold medal marked the first time ever that an athlete had won the Olympic marathon title at successive Games. He competed again in 1968 but had to withdraw after just over a third of the race.
A year later, in 1969, Bikila was involved in a car accident near Addis Abeba which left him paralysed below the waist. He never fully recovered and died four years later from a brain haemorrhage which was related to his car accident.