Abebe Bikila was born in 1932 in the village of Jato, Ethiopia. His father was a shephard and his childhood was spent as a shephard and a student. When he finished his studies at age 12, he walked over 82 miles to Addis Ababa to join the Imperial Bodyguard. His athleticism became apparent during his service, and after beating national hero Wami Biratu in a national marathon, he was added to the Ethiopian national team for the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Adidas, the shoe sponsor of the 1960 Olympics, had few shoes left when Bikila arrived in Rome, and the only remaining ones didn’t fit. So Bikila ran barefoot. He set a world record of 2:15:16.2, and became the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal. After the race, when Bikila was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”
And thus, Ethiopia’s tradition of dominance in international running competitions was born. On Memorial Day of this year I took my daughter to see the professional finish of the Bolder Boulder, one of the largest 10K races in the world. The Ethiopian cheering section, complete with flags and whistles, was the largest and loudest in the University of Colorado’s Folsom Field, the site for the finish. Though she’s only two and a half, I could tell that my daughter was proud that she was also Ethiopian, and that we were cheering for Ethiopians to win the race. And they did; the Ethiopian men finished hand in hand 1-2-3, and the women finished 1-2. Later in the day my daughter told my husband about how she went to see the “Ethio boys,” how fast they ran, and how she wants to run fast like them.
Thank you, Abebe Bikila, for having the courage to run 26.2 miles in a foreign city when you did not even have shoes on your feet. Your pride and strength provided the foundation for one of the most amazing athletic dynasties in history.