Abebe Bikila the first Sub-Saharan African to win a gold medal at the Olympics in 1960 completing the marathon in 2:15:16.2. He went on to win the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as well.
It was Rome 1960; the venue of the Olympics and Italy under the leadership of Mussolini had tried to colonize the African country Ethiopia and had failed dismally. When Bikila stepped on the track there was no pom and fanfare for him in the Italian capital. After all it was 1960 and Pan Africanism was on the rise with many African countries demanding independence from colonialism and the liberation movement was ripe across the continent. The Olympics were certainly not on the forefront of most Africans minds and when Bikila made Olympic history it was certainly a welcome celebration in the midst of all the uncertainty and tribulation that came with the war.
There is little that is known of Bikila’s life because at that time we did not have our own historians. Legend has it that he took the place of another athlete and that he was not initially scheduled to head to Italy to begin with. It was perhaps destiny that brought Bikila before thousands and ushered him into his glory on the Summer night of 1960. This was the time when African ability to compete was questioned in sporting disciplines,politics and economics.
Ethiopia had talented runners but the government realized that talent was certainly not enough.This realization prompted the Ethiopian government to hire an international trainer from Sweden to coach the athletes to compete on the global stage. Bikila’s victory was the biggest return on investment for the East African country which was achieved in national and continental pride putting Ethiopia on the world map and inspiring future generations of runners.
Bikila ran barefoot in Italy.When Bikila was asked why he ran barefoot his response was
I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.
Bikila’s win was reminscient of Berlin 1936; and what Bikila did for Africa can be likened to what Jesse Owens did for black people in America and the world over. Who could forget the day that aryan superiority philosophy were brought to open shame?
Source: Time.com & Oral tradition