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Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won the marathon at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome after running the race barefoot

Neil Patrick

Abebe Bikila was a double Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia, most famous for winning a marathon gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics while running barefoot.

Abebe was added to the Ethiopian Olympic team only at the last moment, just as the plane to Rome was about to leave, in order to replace Wami Biratu, who was seriously ill. Major Onni Niskanen entered Abebe and Abebe Wakjira in the marathon. Adidas, the shoe sponsor at the 1960 Summer Olympics, had few shoes left when Abebe went to get his and he ended up with a pair that didn’t fit comfortably, so he couldn’t use them.

Bikila Source

Bikila Source

A couple of hours before the race, Abebe decided to run barefoot, the way he’d trained for the race. Abebe was warned by Niskanen about his main rivals, one of whom was Rhadi Ben Abdesselamfrom Morocco, who was supposed to wear number 26. For unknown reasons, Rhadi did not acquire his black marathon bib before the race, and instead was wearing his regularly assigned track and field bib number 185.

Bikila near the finish line at the 1960 Olympics Source

Bikila near the finish line at the 1960 Olympics Source

The late afternoon race had its starting point at the foot of the great staircase of the Capitoline Hill. The finish was at the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum. During the race, Abebe passed numerous runners as he searched for Rhadi’s number 26. By about 20 km, Abebe and Rhadi (actually wearing number 185) had created a gap from the rest of the pack. Abebe kept looking forward to find the runner with number 26, unaware that Rhadi was running right beside him. They stayed together until the last 500m, when Abebe sprinted to the finish line. Abebe won in a record time of 2:15:16.2, becoming the first Sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold medal. He finished 25 seconds ahead of Rhadi.

Abebe with son at the 1964 Olympics Source

Abebe with son at the 1964 Olympics Source

After the race, when Abebe was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, “I wanted the whole world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.