Changing history in the eternal city
OLYMPIC MOMENTS:ROME, SEPTEMBER 10th, 1960: Starting line of the men’s Olympic marathon.
They gathered patiently around the Piazza de Campidoglio, all 69 of them, from 35 countries, in no way realising they were standing at one of the defining turning points in Olympic history.
It was 5.30 in the evening, and among the first to notice the tall, impossibly thin African man, wearing a dark green vest and shorts, and no shoes, were the New Zealand runners, Barry Magee and Ray Puckett.
“Well, at least we’ll beat him, anyway,” Puckett said – and no doubt most of the other runners thought the same.
Then, as the field were summoned to the start, the Irish runner Willie Dunne also spotted the tall African, and whispered into the ear of his Irish team-mate Bertie Messitt. “Look at your man,” said Dunne. “Has he any idea how far this race is?”
With that Messitt shouted over to Billy Morton, one of the Irish team officials, to see had he a spare pair of runners for their fellow competitor, assuming no one in their right mind would run 26.2 miles in their bare feet, especially over the hot cobbled streets of Rome.
But they were too late: the gun was fired, and off they ran – and as the miles passed and the evening dusk closed in they each surrendered to the smooth and relentless rhythm of the lean and tireless African, who reached the finish line at the Arch of Constantine in two hours, 15 minutes and 16 seconds – a new world record, the first time an Olympic marathon had been run in under 2:20.
His name was Abebe Bikila, he was from Ethiopia, and he had won Africa’s first ever Olympic gold medal. Four years later in Tokyo, as if to prove it was no fluke, Bikila defended his Olympic title, again lowering the world record, this time to 2:12.11. Never again would an African distance runner go unnoticed.
Whatever about the element of destiny surrounding Bikila’s victory in Rome, it certainly wasn’t unplanned. Ethiopia had developed strong pre-war connections with Sweden, and in 1946, Swedish running coach Omni Niskanen took up an offer to teach physical education at the cadet school in Addis Ababa for officers destined for the Emperor’s Imperial Bodyguard.
Five years later, in 1951, a 19-year-old Bikila, the son of a shepherd, walked the 150 miles from the village of Jato to Addis Ababa and signed up as a cadet – and that was the moment that would change the course of Olympic distance running.
Niskanen was thoroughly knowledgeable of the training methods of the great Scandinavian runners, including Olympic champions Gunder Hagg and Paavo Nurmi, and promptly transferred it to his new pupils such as Bikila, and a young Mamo Wolde.
Before 1960, before Niskanen, before Bikila, African distance running was nothing, going nowhere. In Ethiopia, and neighbouring Kenya, it was incomprehensible that a runner could ever compete on the Olympic stage, let alone dominate it.
Bikila changed all that, and when Wolde, his long-term training partner, went on to win the 1968 Olympic marathon, in Mexico City, Ethiopia’s great distance running tradition had found its lasting foundation.
The subsequent demise of Bikila cast a tragic shadow over his Olympic legacy: on the morning of March 22nd, 1969, Bikila was found trapped inside his overturned Volkswagen, which he’d crashed on the main road into Addis Ababa. On first inspection it seemed he’d suffered only minor injuries, but some days later it was announced that he’d dislocated his seventh vertebra. Bikila would never walk again.