Τhe African athlete, was a pioneer in long-distance running. Abebe participated in a total of sixteen marathons, winning twelve. Onni Niskanen, a Swedish coach employed by the Ethiopian government to train the Imperial Guard, soon noticed him and began training him for the marathon.

Niskanen entered Abebe Bikila and Abebe Wakgira in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics. In Rome, Abebe purchased new running shoes, but they did not fit well and gave him blisters. He consequently decided to run barefoot instead.

Arch of Constantine, the site of the marathon’s finish line / Image source 

Due to Rome’s blistering heat, the race started in late-afternoon at the foot of the Capitoline Hill staircase and finished at night at the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum.

As darkness descended over the city, Bikila and Moroccan long-distance runner, Ben Abdesselam, had already dispatched the rest of the field. The two rivals were left struggling for primacy when the Ethiopian broke away 500m ahead of the finish line, winning by 25 seconds.

He was the first Sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold medal in any Olympic sport, but he also clocked the 42 km event in a record time of 2:15:16. 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.”

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