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Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila started E. Africa’s aristocracy in marathon

Saturday April 28 2018

Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila started East Africa’s dominance of the marathon. In 1964, Abebe became the first of only two people in history to defend his Olympic marathon title. PHOTO | FILE |

Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila started East Africa’s dominance of the marathon. In 1964, Abebe became the first of only two people in history to defend his Olympic marathon title. PHOTO | FILE |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

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Eliud Kipchoge and Vivian Cheruiyot’s victories in last Sunday’s London Marathon reminded the world who royalty is over this distance. But royalty is about lineage and it all started somewhere in the misty past.

Before 1960, the marathon was synonymous with athletes from Japan because it best symbolised their cultural values of self-sacrifice, perseverance, patience and discipline.

But for Kokichi Tsuburaya, bronze medallist in the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity,” a key traditional tenet, proved beyond him and he committed ritual suicide because he couldn’t stand the pressure to win in Mexico ’68.

East Africa’s dominance of the marathon was started by Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila. He was the first among the pantheon of runners – described by athlete and sports writer Kenny Moore as “the great African distance running avalanche” - of which Cheruiyot and Kipchoge are the current world stars. The Abebe Bikila Award for contributions by an individual to long-distance running has been won by two of his compatriots, Mamo Walde and Haile Gebrselassie, Tanzania’s Juma Ikangaa and by our own Paul Tergat and Tegla Loroupe.

Few African athletes have put their names in popular culture as this man. He has been the subject of books and documentary films in addition to countless newspaper and magazine articles. Fewer still have been as nationally and internationally feted – and for good reasons. When next you come across somebody who has lost the will to live just because he lost his job, ask him to read the story of Abebe Bikila.

This year marks 45 years since his death. Abebe set the world marathon record during the 1960 Rome Olympics while running barefoot. That wasn’t his original plan. He had actually purchased a pair of running shoes but in training, he discovered that they didn’t fit properly and gave him blisters. He decided to run barefoot, all of the 42-plus kilometres of the distance. It proved to be of little hindrance to his ambitious objective.


(In passing, let’s note that Abebe was not our original barefoot hero. Okot p’Bitek’s Ugandan national football team toured the UK in 1956 and, playing without boots, defeated the vastly experienced English team to the Melbourne Olympics 2-1.

When the team returned home, Okot remained behind to study literature, law, sociology and philosophy. His Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol became the standard by which our poets are benchmarked, to use a rather jaded term in our lexicon. But that, of course, is a story for another day).

Abebe was a soldier in the Ethiopian armed forces, attached to the Imperial Guard. The detachment provided security to the Emperor of Ethiopia. He was enlisted as a soldier but as his amateur athletics career blossomed, so did his military progress; by the time of his death, he had already crossed over into the officer ranks and was a captain in the Guard.

Although he had notched up victories in the late 1950s, it was his Olympic win in 1960 that catapulted him into celebrity status. He returned home to a heroes’ welcome in Addis Ababa and was given the American equivalent of a ticket-tape parade. After processions along the streets lined with thousands of people led by a galaxy of dignitaries, Emperor Haile Selassie awarded him the Star of Ethiopia, promoted him to the rank of corporal and gave him a new Volkswagen Beetle and a house. That car would later turn fateful in Abebe’s life.


But first, he had to survive a major scare. In December 1960, soldiers of the Imperial Guard attempted to stage a coup while the Emperor was on a state visit to Brazil. The putsch was led by the Guard’s commander, an officer by the rank of Brigadier General named Mengistu Neway.

There was heavy fighting which spread into the streets of Addis Ababa with substantial casualties on both the plotters and loyalist forces. But the attempt was eventually put down. Abebe was briefly arrested, questioned and found to have played no role. He was released and his professional status remained unchanged.

But his boss, Brig-Gen Neway’s life and career came to a tragic end. He was tried and hanged.

In 1964, Abebe became the first of only two people in history to defend his Olympic marathon title. This was in Tokyo and his victory proved particularly frustrating for the Japanese who could have given anything not only to win their first Olympic laurel, but to do it on home soil.

And as if to underline that they stood no chance, Abebe declared that he felt strong enough to run another 10 to 15 kilometres. He did a number of floor exercises for effect at the end of his race, like lying on his back and cycling in the air.

Aged 36, he tried to go for a third title in Mexico City in 1968. But age was knocking on his door and one week before the race started, doctors discovered a fracture on his fibula and advised him to stay off his feet until competition day.

He did but that was still not good enough and he had to drop off at the 16 kilometre mark, leaving Mamo Walde to do the winning in the race made famous by Tanzania’s John Stephen Akhwari.


In all, Abebe participated in 16 marathons and won 12 of them. Then his fortunes turned sharply for the worse.

On the night of March 22, 1969, he was at the wheel of his beloved gift from Emperor Haile Sellasie - the Volkswagen Beetle. It was a rain-soaked night.

In books and documentaries, different writers, including his daughter Tsige Abebe, have given varying accounts of what exactly caused his accident. Some people said he could have been drinking.

Others that he was forced off the road by some reckless motorist and still others pointed out that he was not the most competent driver. In fact, the car had come with a chauffeur because at the time it was given to him, he didn’t know how to drive.

Whatever the case, the Beetle rolled and trapped him inside it. Abebe spent the rest of the night there, without help from anybody. The following morning, passers-by freed him and took him to the Imperial Guard Hospital.

Tragically, it turned out that he had been paralyzed from his neck down. The two-time Olympic marathon champion and world record holder was now a quadriplegic.

He would never walk again. Once stabilised but not even able to move his head, they flew him to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England for specialised treatment. Among the dignitaries from Britain and around the world who visited him was Queen Elizabeth II. With time, Abebe regained the use of his hands.

That is when he embarked on wheel chair sports. In July 1970, he took part in archery and table tennis during the Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games. These were the precursor to today’s Paralympics. The following year, he was invited to Norway as a guest during games of physically disabled persons. But Abebe elected to compete in archery and table tennis.

Astonishingly, he also defeated a 16-strong field in cross country sled dog racing.  

Able-bodied sports people transition from one sport to another but it takes special character to accept permanent disability and become a champion again. Abebe’s transformation became legendary.

How could a man who was so strong and who was so comfortably perched at the top of his world accept that he would never walk again and decide to become a wheelchair sports champion? If he had any regrets, he never showed them. He remained the same competitive and friendly athlete. Lesser people give up over small setbacks.

For his attitude, Abebe continued attracting invitations and raking in the honours. He was invited to the Munich Olympics of 1972 and a full Olympic Stadium gave him a standing ovation when he was introduced. He died on October 25, 1973 at the age of only 41.

The accident had taken too much out of him and he suffered cerebral hemorrhage which was directly attributed to the injuries he had suffered in that car crash four years earlier.

He was given a state funeral with full military honours before an overflow crowd of 65,000 people that included the Emperor himself. One day of national mourning was declared and a bronze statue erected over his tomb. Abebe Bikila Stadium in Addis Ababa is named after him.

He started a tradition that seems to have permanently put paid to any hopes Japan had of achieving glory in the race that best exemplifies its character. Every Ethiopian, Tanzanian or Kenyan who ever won the big draw marathons came after him and Japan, once a country having the fastest 11 of 13 marathoners in the world, has been pushed to the back banner.

And yet, by his perseverance in the face of so much suffering, Abebe remains the one marathon runner who best embodies those authentic Japanese traits of doing one’s best in distressed circumstances and not expecting the world to owe you a living.

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Yesterday marked 25 years since one of Africa’s most promising football sides, Chipolopolo, as the Zambian national team is called, was lost at sea off Libreville in Gabon. ‘Eighteam’ is the documentary film that traced the team’s journey from the devastation of that tragedy to ultimate triumph in the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012. The victory took place just a few kilometres from the disaster site.

Eighteam’s title was taken from the fact that 18 players died in the crash, there were 18 penalties in the shoot-out between Zambia and Cote d’Ivoire and there were 18 years between the crash and that epic final. It is another uplifting story of triumph over tragedy.