Shambel Abebe Bikila: The Legendary Footsteps of a Marathon Icon

Saurav Singh

Image Courtesy: Google Doodle

Shambel Abebe Bikila (August 7, 1932 – October 25, 1973) remains a legendary figure in the world of long-distance running. Hailing from Ethiopia, he etched his name in history as the first Ethiopian Olympic gold medalist and the first athlete to win consecutive Olympic marathon titles. This article delves into the life and achievements of this extraordinary athlete, exploring his early days, accomplishments, and lasting legacy.

Shambel Abebe Bikila’s journey from humble beginnings to becoming a back-to-back Olympic marathon champion is a testament to human spirit and determination. He defied conventions, ran barefoot to victory, and set world records, etching his name in the annals of sporting history.

Though his life was tragically cut short, his impact endures. Abebe’s legacy serves as a beacon of hope for aspiring athletes worldwide, proving that with dedication and perseverance, the impossible can be achieved. As the East African preeminence in long-distance running continues, Abebe Bikila’s indelible mark remains, forever inspiring generations to come.

Life and Career

Abebe Bikila was born on August 7, 1932, in the small community of Jato, then part of the Selale District of Shewa. His birth coincided with the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic marathon, perhaps an early indication of the greatness that awaited him. His parents were Wudinesh Beneberu and her second husband, Demissie. During the tumultuous times of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935–1937), his family was compelled to move to the remote town of Gorro. Afterward, they returned to Jato (or nearby Jirru) and settled on a farm.

As a young boy, Abebe Bikila displayed his physical prowess and love for sports. He played “gena,” a traditional long-distance hockey game with goalposts situated kilometers apart. In 1952, he moved to Addis Ababa and joined the 5th Infantry Regiment of the Imperial Guard, marking a significant turning point in his life. During the mid-1950s, he made a remarkable daily routine of running 20 km (12 mi) from the hills of Sululta to Addis Ababa and back, showcasing his dedication and stamina.

It was during this time that fate brought him to the attention of Onni Niskanen, a Swedish coach employed by the Ethiopian government to train the Imperial Guard. Niskanen recognized Abebe’s potential and began preparing him for marathon events. In 1956, Abebe demonstrated his growing talent by finishing second to Wami Biratu in the Ethiopian Armed Forces championship.

Abebe Bikila’s path to the Olympics was far from impromptu; it was a carefully planned operation. In 1960, at the Rome Summer Olympics, history was made as he clinched the gold medal in the marathon. Notably, he ran barefoot, defying conventional norms and leaving a lasting impression on the world. This victory not only marked the first Olympic gold medal for Ethiopia but also for the entire African continent.

Four years later, at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Abebe achieved an astonishing feat by securing his second consecutive gold medal in the marathon. This achievement made him the first athlete ever to defend an Olympic marathon title. Both victories were accompanied by the establishment of world record times, solidifying his place as a running legend.

Tragic Turn of Events

As with many remarkable journeys, Abebe Bikila’s life was not without its share of challenges. On October 25, 1973, tragedy struck when he passed away in Addis Ababa at the age of 41 due to a cerebral hemorrhage. This complication was related to an accident he had endured four years earlier, which had left a lasting impact on his health.

Ethiopia mourned the loss of a national hero, and Abebe was accorded a state funeral with full military honors. Emperor Haile Selassie, along with an estimated 65,000 people, paid their respects to the fallen legend. The stadium in Addis Ababa was named in his honor, a testament to the impact he had on the nation and its people.

Legacy and Awards

Abebe Bikila’s legacy transcends his accomplishments on the track; he played a pivotal role in revolutionizing long-distance running, particularly in East Africa. He paved the way for the region’s dominance in the sport and inspired a generation of runners. Kenny Moore, a contemporary athlete and writer, aptly described his influence as “the great African distance running avalanche.”

Abebe’s success shed light on the crucial link between endurance and high-altitude training, a relationship now widely acknowledged in various sports. In recognition of his contributions to long-distance running, the New York Road Runners introduced the annual Abebe Bikila Award, honoring individuals who have made significant impacts in the field. Among the East African recipients of this esteemed award are Mamo Wolde, Juma Ikangaa, Tegla Loroupe, Paul Tergat, and Haile Gebrselassie.

In Ethiopia, Abebe remains a revered national hero, forever etched in the nation’s history and the hearts of its people. His achievements have inspired countless aspiring athletes, encouraging them to strive for greatness. On 7 August 2013 a Google Doodle was created to celebrate Abebe Bikila’s 81st Birthday.