The Indianapolis Star from Indianapolis, Indiana on November 5, 1989 · Page 13
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The Indianapolis Star from Indianapolis, Indiana · Page 13

Indianapolis, Indiana
Issue Date:
Sunday, November 5, 1989
Page 13
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Abebe Bikila, a 28-year-old unknown from Ethiopia, running in his bare feet, won an Olympic marathon and set a world record Maybe He was THE BEST With all the attention given to today's 20th New York City Marathon and the popularity of marathon races around the nation and the world, we felt it appro priate to ask our foremost sports histo rian, Bud Greenspan, to review the triumph of the man who may have been the greatest marathoner of all time. rHEN THE 26-Jf year-old Abebe 1 Mekonnen of Ethiopia won la the Boston Mar- athon last April, 11 M he was continu- f ing his country's 1 7 tradition of ex- w cellence in the classic 26-mile 385-yard distance. His win brought back to me memo ries of another great Ethiopian champion perhaps the world's finest marathoner and his dramatic victory almost three decades ago. It was in 1960 in the Olympic marathon in Rome that Abebe Bikila thrilled the world. Abebe Bikila, then 28, was almost totally unknown when he arrived in Rome for the Olympic Games. He had not even been scheduled to be there. But even though it was only his third race at that distance, Bikila, running in his bare feet, set a world record. His victory gave Ethiopia its first Olympic gold medal ever and made him an immediate international folk hero. "It took one million Italian soldiers to conquer Addis Ababa," said one Italian newspaper, "but only one Ethiopian sol dier to conquer Rome." It was referring to Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and noting mat bikila was a member of Emperor Haile Selassie's bodyguard. Another reporter wrote, unable to afford shoes, Bikila ran over the sunbaked cobblestones in the same manner that a Greek warrior did more than 2000 years ago. He referred to the first marathon, run in 490 B.C., when a Greek soldier ran from the city of Marathon to Athens, bringing the news that the Greeks had repulsed the invading Persian army. It was because of this historic run that the marathon became part of the Olym pics when they were revived in 1896. Onm Niskanen, Bikila s Swedish . ,'ff Hi 1 Us - "J 0 4 Xr, , coach, put a lie to the story that Bikila ran in bare feet because he didn't have money for shoes. Niskanen told me that when they arrived in Rome, Bikila's favorite running shoes had worn thin. He was immediately supplied with a new pair. "The new shoes were too narrow and pinchedhisfeet'saidNiskanen. "Abebe tried them, and his feet began to blister. So a day before the race Abebe said he would prefer to run in bare feet. I agreed." Bikila did wear running shoes four years later, in the Tokyo Olympics. "The experts gave Abebe little chance," said Niskanen. "Nobody had ever won the marathon twice." But although he'd had his appendix removed just six weeks before , he did win, making Olympic history. Abebe would be 36 by the '68 Games but still was confident he could win his third successive victory in Mexico City. It was then that I decided to produce a documentary about Abebe. My wife Cappy and I traveled to Addis Ababa and began filming Bikila a few months before the '68 Olympics. About a week before the race I mat-ter-of-factly asked Negusse Roba, the Ethiopian national coach, what he thought of Abebe's chances. I gave no particular significance at the time to his reply. "If he is well, he will win," said Roba. All appeared well at the start of the Mexico City race. Abebe was feather-footing along with effortless grace. At 10 kilometers he was in the lead group. Methodically he moved on, then, a little past the 17-kilometer mark, he tiptoed off the roadway, retiring from the race. At 31 kilometers, Bikila's teammate Mamo Wolde burst into the lead picking up the torch that Abebe carried for Ethiopian runners in Rome and Tokyo. Wolde went on to win. "It was important that I win both for Abebe and for Ethiopia," he said after his victory. "Abebe was not well. If he had not been injured, he surely would have won." Negusse Roba later revealed that a week earlier Abebe had suffered a hairline fracture of the bone in his left leg. bikila returned to Ethiopia, determined to continue in competition. But in March 1969, five months after Mexico City, I received a call from Addis Ababa. Abebe had been in a car accident. He was paralyzed from the waist down. I visited Abebe at an English hospital that specialized in the rehabilitation of paraplegics. "God was with me during my victories," he told me. "God is with me during my injuries. If God sees fit, I will walk again." In 1972, Cappy and I went back to Addis Ababa for the dedication of the Abebe Bikila Gymnasium and the premiere of our film The Ethiopians, which featured Abebe's life story. More than 1000 people attended the premiere. As we sat in the darkened room the film showing Abebe's Tokyo victory Cappy and I heard a sniffle. We looked over at Abebe. His face was impassive, but a single tear rolled slowly down his left cheek. Then the film ended. The audience stood up, giving Abebe an ovation. For the first few moments, Abebe nodded his head as the roar grew louder. Then his face broke into a broad smile, and the roar of the crowd was deafening. He tried to raise himself from his wheelchair but couldn't. Abebe never left the wheelchair. On Oct. 25, 1973, at age 41, Abebe Bikila died of a cerebral hemorrhage. E9 BY BUD GREENSPAN PAGE 14 NOVEMBER 5, 1989 PARADE MAGAZINE

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