Abebe Bikila ( August 7, 1932 – October 25, 1973) was a double Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia, most famous for winning a marathon gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics while running barefoot. A stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honor
Abebe Bikila was born on August 7, 1932, in the small community of Jato, located 25 kilometers outside the town of Mendida, Ethiopia.His birth coincided with the day of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Marathon. His father was a shepherd. Abebe decided to work for the Imperial Bodyguard to support his family, and walked over 20 kilometers to Addis Ababa where he started as a private bodyguard for the members of the royal family.
Onni Niskanen, a Finnish-born Swede, was hired by the Ethiopian government to train potential athletes. He soon spotted Bikila.
1960 Olympic marathon win – Rome
Bikila was added to the Ethiopian Olympic team only at the last moment, as the plane to Rome was about to leave, as a replacement for Wami Biratu, who was seriously ill. Major Onni Niskanen entered Bikila and Abebe Wakjira in the marathon.
Adidas, the shoe sponsor at the 1960 Summer Olympics, had few shoes left when Bikila went to try out shoes and he ended up with a pair that didn’t fit comfortably, so he couldn't use them. A couple of hours before the race, Bikila decided to run barefoot, the way he'd trained for the race. Bikila was warned by Niskanen about his main rivals, one of whom was Rhadi Ben Abdesselam from Morocco, who was supposed to wear number 26. For unknown reasons, Rhadi did not acquire his black marathon bib before the race, and instead was wearing his regularly assigned track and field bib number 185.
The late afternoon race had its starting point at the foot of the great staircase of the Capitoline Hill. The finish was at the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum.
During the race Bikila passed numerous runners as he searched for Rhadi's number 26. By about 20 km, Bikila and Rhadi (actually wearing number 185) had created a gap from the rest of the pack. Bikila kept looking forward to find the runner with number 26, unaware that Rhadi was running right beside him. They stayed together until the last 500 m, when Bikila sprinted to the finish line. Bikila won in a record time of 2:15:16.2, becoming the first Sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold medal. He finished 25 seconds ahead of Rhadi.
After the race, when Bikila was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, “I wanted the whole world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism."