Changing history in the eternal city

Sat, Jul 7, 2012, 01:00

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.

In 1972 he was a guest of honour at the opening ceremony at the Munich Olympics. “He was like one of the Three Kings, frozen in his wheelchair,” wrote Robert Pariente, in L’Equipe. One year later, on October 25th, 1973, Bikila died of a brain haemorrhage, believed to be a complication arising from his accident. Niskanen, his old coach, believed Bikila “died of grief”.

In the years that followed his death the list of all-conquering Ethiopian runners continued to grow – Murits Yifter, Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele – and all have paid tribute to Bikila for showing them the way, and for showing the rest of the world the true limits of distance running.

Yet Bikila’s influence was at least partly responsible for the emergence of the great distance running tradition in neighbouring Kenya, which began almost simultaneously when in 1968 Hezekiah Kipchoge Keino – better known as “Kip” Keino – first staked Kenya’s claim on Olympic dominance by winning the 1,500 metres.

Keino proved that the east African runners weren’t just amazingly smooth but also devastatingly quick.

When he also won the steeplechase gold in 1972, plus two Olympic silvers (5,000m in 1968, 1,500m in 1972) he underlined their versatility too, and soon the Ethiopian and Kenyan influence would be felt across all Olympic distance running events.

In most cases their athletes were blazing a solo trail, before in 1986, Kenya brought a little more structure to their coaching for the inaugural World Junior Championships, staged in Athens, when the team management included Cork native Brother Colm O’Connell, headmaster at St Patrick’s High School, in Iten.

Kenya came home with four gold medals: the 1,500m, 5,000m, 10,000m and women’s 800m, while taking silver in the 1,500m was Peter Rono. Two years later, at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Rono won the 1,500m gold medal – and Kenyan men also won the 800m (Paul Ereng), 5,000m (John Ngugi), and the steeplechase (Julius Kariuki).

Since then the rest of the world has hardly got a look in, and now in London later this month the east African athletes will almost certainly win every distance race from 800 metres up to and including the marathon – both men and women. There may be a couple of exceptions, such as Britain’s Mo Farah, although he was actually born and raised in Somalia.

Of those six events in Beijing four years ago (800m, 1,500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, 3,000m steeplechase and marathon) Kenya and Ethiopia won 10 of a possible 12 – the only exceptions being the women’s 3,000m steeplechase, which was won by Russia’s Gulnara Samitova (in a world record 8:58.81), and the women’s marathon, which was won by the 38-year-old Romanian Constantina Tomescu (in a slow 2:26.44).

Ethiopia came home with seven Olympic medals from Beijing – including Tirunesh Dibaba’s women’s distance double. They managed only one gold medal at last summer’s World Championships, when Ibrahim Jeilan won the 10,000m (after Farah started his finishing sprint too soon) but there are plenty of warning signs that Ethiopia will be vying closely with Kenya again for that zenith of Olympic distance running, still inspired by the man who 52 years ago ran bare-footed to first bring them there.

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