Athletics

Abebe Bikila wins marathon gold 40 days after appendicitis surgery

In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian marathon runner who glided through the streets to claim gold.

The background

Nobody outside of Ethiopia had heard of Abebe Bikila when he arrived at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games. He hadn’t even been the first choice entrant for his country, who until that point had never won an Olympic gold medal.

In fact, in 1960 no athlete from an East African nation had won gold - and it seemed unlikely that Bikila, a soldier in the Ethiopian army and last-minute replacement for an injured teammate, would be the person to buck that trend.

“Who’s this Ethiopian?” questioned one commentator.

He would soon have his answer.

Bikila had purchased new running shoes for the marathon in Rome that year, but having found they gave him blisters, decided to run - as he had many times in the plains of his home country - barefoot over the 26.2 mile course that wound around the streets of the Italian capital. But the marathon course was nothing like the softer ground of an athletics track or even the cushioned earth of a cross country race. Many of the streets the marathon runners would pass through that year were cobbled and uneven, and the race took place at night - lit only by members of the Italian armed forces holding torches at the side of the roads.

“It wasn’t a marathon it was ‘Aida’,” Italy’s Corriere della Sera reported. “With the Romans roadside making up the chorus.”

But to the shock of the world, Bikila triumphed that evening in Rome, finishing the race in 2:15:16 and breaking the world record by a full eight seconds.

Four years later in Tokyo, would he be able to do the unthinkable and become the first athlete to win back-to-back marathon golds?

The moment

By the time Tokyo 1964 was about to begin, everybody in the running world now knew who Bikila was. He was now among the favourites for gold, but Tokyo would prove to be a completely different prospect for the Ethiopian long-distance king.

For one, the weather in Tokyo was intimidating, with 90 per cent humidity causing an almost misty haze to descend over the stadium where the starters lined up to begin their quest for marathon glory.

Something else that would have been noticed by anyone who had watched his race in Rome was that Bikila was wearing shoes - white, flat-soled running shoes that look decidedly different to the ultra-cushioned gear worn by long-distance elite runners today.

But perhaps the most important difference for Bikila was the build-up to the event. Just 40 days prior to the marathon competition, he had been diagnosed with acute appendicitis, spending a week in hospital following an emergency appendectomy.

But nothing would stop Bikila from making history that year in Tokyo.

In gruelling race that took a devastating toll on many of the runners competing in it (of the 68 starters, 10 didn’t make it to the finish line), Bikila was composure personified.

Utilising his relaxed, highly efficient running style, the Ethiopian glided through the streets of Tokyo.

In truth, he was in a league of his own that day, coming home over four minutes sooner than his nearest rival, Basil Heatley of Great Britain.

When he passed through the tape at the end of the race in a new Olympic record of 2:12:11.2, he looked like he had barely broken a sweat. In a race where many of the competition collapsed across the finish line, Bikila celebrated by doing gymnastic exercises on his back at the edge of the track.

For the second time in as many Games, Bikila received Ethiopia's only gold medal - and with it became the only athlete to win two marathon gold medals.

Abebe Bikila

What happened next?

Of the 13 marathons he ever competed in, Abebe Bikila won 12.

Until he first graced the Olympic stage, East African athletes had never won Olympic gold. Now runners from the region are the dominant force in long-distance running, with Ethiopia on its own having won a total of 22 gold medals.

Bikila returned home a hero, but in 1969 tragedy struck. The Volkswagen Beetle he was driving was involved in a traffic accident that left the legendary athlete paralysed. He would never walk again.

But being bound to a wheelchair did not stop Bikila from continuing to compete. A year later, while still receiving treatment for his accident, he took part in the 1970 Stoke Mandeville Games in London - the forerunner to today’s Paralympic Games.

Bikila died at age 41 in 1973, following a cerebral haemorrhage related to his accident. It was less than 10 years after his incredible victory in Tokyo.

But the legend - and legacy - of East Africa’s first Olympic gold medallist continues to live on today.