Ethiopian track and field athlete, Abebe Bikila (1932-1973), was the first black African to win an Olympic medal, and the first man ever to win two Olympic marathons. Known for his grace and stamina, he was considered the most perfect example of a naturally talented distance runner.
Abebe Bikila, the son of a shepherd, did not begin running until he was 24 years old. Bikila was born in the mountains of Ethiopia. When he was old enough, Bikila became a private in the army and bodyguard of Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia. As part of his training, he was sent to a camp that the government had set up after World War II. At the camp, Swedish coach Onni Niskanen recognized that Bikila had exceptional talent in running. In the 6,000-foot high mountains, he led Bikila and the others through grueling workouts. Runs of up to twenty miles and repeated sprints of 1,500 meters were common. Often, Bikila and the other recruits ran barefoot over the tough, rocky soil.
Bikila won his first marathon in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa in July 1960. Because Ethiopia was an isolated country and kept its borders closed to the rest of the world, people outside did not take much notice of Bikila. In addition, his winning time was 2 hours, 21 minutes, and 23 seconds, not particularly impressive compared to other runners. In August, Bikila ran a second marathon in Addis Ababa. His improved winning time was dramatic, as was the fact that both marathons were run at a high altitude and he had won them only a month apart, with little rest in between. Niskanen was convinced that Bikila could win the Olympic marathon, which would be held that same year, in Rome.
Bikila’s gold medal was the first Olympic medal won by a black African. This achievement, with Rhadi’s silver medal, marked the beginning of a new era in international competition, in which African athletes would come to dominate distance running. Bikila achieved instant fame around the world. He was known as the Ethiopian who had conquered Rome.
In 1961, Bikila won marathon races in Greece, Japan, and Czechoslovakia. Still holding the world record, he returned to Ethiopia in October and did not take part in international competition for two more years.
In 1963, he ran in the Boston Marathon, and lost for the first time in his career, finishing fifth. After this race he went back to his army job in Ethiopia, disappearing from international view once again. Rumors circulated that he was running and competing in Ethiopia.
Emperor Haile Selassie gave him a promotion to captain. In 1969, he was driving a Volkswagen in Addis Ababa when his car collided with another vehicle. Although Haile Selassie sent him to England for medical treatment, the doctors there could do nothing for him. He was paralyzed from the waist down. When he was brought back to Ethiopia on a stretcher, huge crowds gathered to welcome him home and cheer for him. Bikila turned to paraplegic sports, focusing on archery. He never walked again.
In 1973, Bikila died from a brain hemorrhage. He was 41 years old and left a wife and four children. His career included fifteen marathon races, with twelve victories. After his death, Haile Selassie proclaimed a national day of mourning; 65,000 people attended the funeral