Every month Primer Magazine is recognizing a different individual for their accomplishments, cultural significance, and general awesomeness. Since February is Black History Month we decided to step up the honors for the month recognizing a new subject once ever week. This week: Abebe Bikila.
While warming up to run the marathon in the 1960 Olympics, American Gordon McKenzie, looked over and saw a man wearing #11 warming up to run the race. The man was thin as a rail and not wearing any shoes. “Well, that’s one guy we don’t have to worry about.” McKenzie joked to his teammate.
That barefoot runner was Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, and he would go on to win his first of two Olympic gold medals in marathons that year in Rome.
Bikila not only shaped distance running into what it is today, he is almost certainly the most famous and appreciated African athlete ever.
Many people take it for granted when they see a black African win an event in the Olympics but in 1960, when Bikila took home the gold, he had accomplished something no other black African had ever done in any event. Did I mention he ran barefoot?
He hadn’t planned on running barefoot, but unable to find a comfortable pair of shoes to run in (Bikila did not arrive to try shoes on until shortly before the race and sponsor Adidas had few left), the decision was made. It wasn’t that much of an added challenge for Bikila, since it was how he trained in the mountains of Ethiopia anyway.
Bikila quickly became a national hero and in 1964 he won again (with shoes this time).
Sadly, Bikila would never finish another Olympic race. In 1968 injury prevented him from crossing the finish line in Mexico City. In 1969 a car accident would leave him a paraplegic preventing him from ever running again.
Although his legs were broken his spirit was not. He would compete in the paraplegic Olympics and joked he would still win gold in Munich; in his wheelchair. He never fully recovered from the accident, succumbing to complications in 1973 at the age of 41. Despite his brief career he remains an international hero, truly remarkable athlete, and too often overlooked trailblazer.
Read more about Bikila and his accomplishments: