Abebe Bikila (August 7, 1932 – October 25, 1973) was an Ethiopian double Olympic marathon champion. His family were farmers and they inspired him to be a hard worker. When he was a little boy he used to guide the sheep. In order to keep up with them he ran many miles every day. His neighbors, who inspired him to become a runner, saw him running while he was guiding sheep and they were impressed by his performance.

In the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Abebe Bikila won the marathon event in world record time (2:15:16) and became the first African to win an Olympic medal. Not only that, he did it barefoot (after they couldn’t find a pair of shoes that fit him comfortably)! Mind you a lot of the streets in Rome are cobblestone and since it was so hot the race was started at sunset and ended in the dark of night lit by Roman soldiers holding torches. He was a last minute replacement for the Ethiopian team and didn’t even start running until he was 24. Evidently a few KM from the finish, Bikila saw the Obelisk of Axum, which invading Italian troops stole from Ethiopia (and only restored to Ethiopia after 68 years). At this point Bikila was neck and neck with the Moroccan Rhadi, but when he saw the obelisk he surged and Rhadi couldn’t keep up.

Even though he had an appendectomy 40 days before the event and wasn’t able to train or expected to even run it, he went on to win again in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, this time with shoes, becoming the first person to repeat gold in the marathon.

You might wonder what he could’ve done with “modern” training and equipment, but then again this also demonstrates the importance of natural talent and determination. The biomechanical efficiency of his stride is simply inspiring.


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