The Ethiopian who conquered Rome. A Review by Derek Miller
The year was 1960 and the setting was the Olympic Marathon in Rome. Crowds on the sidewalk, pointed and stared, and athletes joked amongst themselves. A youthful and slender Ethiopian man, named Abebe Bikila, bobbed and stretched at the starting line. It looked like he had forgotten his running shoes. He was wide-eyed, and primed, and still looked steely for the task ahead. No athlete, had dared run through city, cobbled streets without footwear before, and not since the dawn of the event had anyone gone entirely barefoot.
Two hours and fifteen minutes later, the slight man, wearing 11 on his shirt, announced the emergence of Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, as a major power house in the event. And as the legend goes, Bikila picked up his stride as he glided past the towering Axum Obelisk, that Mussolini looted from his home, less than three decades before.
Bikila was a member of Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard, at a time when the continent was striving to break the chains of colonial rule. Many in the sport doubted African nations were ready to compete, but he proved them all wrong. He went on to take gold four years later in Tokoyo too.
For someone who blazed such a trail as he did, little is known about him, other than his two Olympic triumphs. He was a humble villager, who took little reward for his mammoth achievements. He slipped from the limelight, and his body betrayed him after Mexico 1968. He was seriously injured in a car crash, and passed away a few years later, aged forty one.
There are two fascinating new books about Bikila now out in bookshops, which attempt to shed light on this monumental African marathon man. But without much in the way of interviews, diaries, and much behind the scenes substance, so often necessary for such insight, readers are left with a simple choice between soothing fictionalisation, or hard fact.
‘Barefoot Runner:The Life of a Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila’, by ex music journalist Paul Rambali, makes good use of conjuring devices such as imagined conversations and anecdotes, and his retelling of the Rome event is trully stirring. However, the liberal use of fictional devices may make it less reliable to some as a reliable historical account. It was recently published in paperback version by Profile Books for £8.99. On the other hand, veteran foreign correspondent, Tim Judah’s ‘Bikila:Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian’, published by Reportage Press at £12.99 is a straight-laced, fact based, version of Rambali’s work. And though it may be too full and factual for some, it succeeds in outlining the significance of Bikila in the overall history of running and of Africa. Both books are still available.