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Ethiopia these days is known for its distance runners with legends having made their mark on track and field events over the years. But that was not the case in the mid-20th century. The country’s reputation stems from the exploits of one legendary runner, born in the small community of Jato on August 7, 1932. At the time, Abebe Bikila had zero inkling about the millions he would leave awestruck in Rome 28 years later.
Bikila’s father was a shepherd but young Abebe didn’t intend to follow in his footsteps. Instead he joined the Imperial Bodyguard which would eventually support his inclusion in the 1960 Ethiopian Olympic contingent to Rome. Even that came through fortune, as Bikila was drafted as a last minute replacement for an injured athlete.
If his inclusion was happenstance then Bikila made sure it would not remain unremarkable. At the 1960 summer games, an unknown 28 year-old Bikila amazed the world winning the Olympic marathon gold. What attracted the world’s attention was not just the fact that he became first Ethiopian winner of the marathon event, but that Bikila ran the entire 42.1 km distance barefoot, with not so much as a pair of socks on.
The story goes that Adidas, the shoe sponsor for Rome 1960, offered Bikila shoes to try out before the race, but the soon-to-be legend didn’t find them comfortable enough to run in. So he decided to run barefoot, just like he had trained. After the race, Bikila is believed to have replied to a question about the lack of footwear with a sharp retort, “I wanted the whole world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”
Four years later, in Tokyo, Bikila won gold yet again, but this time with shoes on. And as if to prove that wearing shoes actually made a difference, he managed to better the time he set in Rome by more than 3 minutes!
Main image courtesy AFP/Getty Images