History Unwrapped: Barefoot Ethiopian Runner Abebe Bikila Conquers Rome

After a meeting with a group of Christians in Dallas, Texas, to strategize about the recent pro-homosexual SCOTUS ruling, I was driven to the airport by a young man from Ethiopia. I asked him if he knew of Abebe Bikila. He gave me a big smile. He knew of him. everybody in Ethiopia did.

Abebe Bikila is a fitting symbol for the fight we are in. In the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds, a lone African runner step-by-step brought great dignity to his tiny nation. We can do the same with a similar effort.

Here’s how fellow-Olympian Bob Richards, the only two-time Olympic gold medal winner in the pole vault (1952 and 1956), described the symbolic nature of Bikila’s effort:

I was working for CBS then, I was wondering how in the world you can run a Marathon on Cobble stone barefoot? Here is all the splendor of Rome, here is the bath of Caracalla, the Apian Way; here is the Arc of Constantine. So dramatic because the Italian army had taken the symbol of Ethiopia. It was there in the light you could see it… I started crying, to me it is one of the most dramatic moments I have ever seen in the Olympics.

Here’s a short video I did on Bikila.

In 1936, the Roman dictator Benito Mussolini made inroads into Ethiopia, and in a sense Abebe Bikila conquered Rome 24 years later. Bikila was born August 7, 1932, the same day that the Marathon was run in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

In 1960, Bikila would win the gold medal for Ethiopia in his first Olympic Marathon. As a last minute replacement to the 1960 Olympic team, Bikila was unable to find a comfortable pair of running shoes.

abebe bikila

His coaches decided that he should run the hard-surfaced and cobblestone 26-mile course in his bare feet. Bikila ran in record time and became the first African to win an Olympic gold medal.

He won again in the 1964 Olympics, this time wearing shoes. Bikila died at 41 of complications resulting from a car accident that had left him a paraplegic. A national day of mourning was proclaimed to honor the humble Ethiopian who had become a hero.

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