Abebe Bikila- Barefoot Marathon Champion
A shoe-less African running through the streets of Rome resembled a scene closer to the time of slaves and gladiators than the modern, espresso-sipping day of Italy.
But spectators who lined up to watch the marathon race at the 1960 Olympics in Rome were treated to just that: an unknown barefoot Ethiopian racing through their ancient city to win the gold medal. Overnight, this son of a shepherd from rural Ethiopia was transformed into an international athletic sensation.
Abebe Bikila was a last minute replacement for his squad and it was by accident that he was pounding the pavement with the soles of his feet- the pair of Adidas he was given hours before the race were either too small or too uncomfortable. So the 27-year old turned to his culture's traditional mode of locomotion, barefoot walking and running. He ended up becoming not only the first sub-Saharan to win gold in the Olympics, but he also clocked the 42km race in record time of 2 hrs, 15 minutes and 16 seconds.
In later years, other Olympians who tried to conquer the ground barefoot included Singapore's P.C. Suppiah at the 1972 Munich games, England's Zola Budd at the 1984 Los Angeles competitions, and Kenya's Tegla Loroupe at the 2000 Sydney tournaments. But none came close to winning a medal and none exceled in the marathon distance.
Four years after Rome, Bikila went on to win the same race at the Tokyo Olympics, cutting his old record by over 3 minutes but this time with his feet covered.
In a cruel twist of fate, the dual-gold marathoner was left paralyzed following a car accident in 1969 and died four years later- the car he was driving was a gift from Ethiopia's emperor Haile Selassie in recognition of his achievements.
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