Abebe Bikila was born on August 7, 1932, in the small community of Jato, located 25 kilometers outside the town of Mendida, Ethiopia. His birth coincided with the day of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Marathon. His father was a shepherd.
Abebe decided to work for the Imperial Bodyguard to support his family, and walkedover 20 kilometers to Addis Ababa where he started as a private bodyguard for the members of the royal family. Adidas, the shoe sponsor at the 1960 Summer Olympics, had few shoes left when Bikila went to try out shoes and he ended up with a pair that didn’t fit comfortably, so he couldn’t use them.
A couple of hours before the race, Bikila decided to run barefoot, the way he’d trained for the race. Bikila was warned by Niskanen about his main rivals, one of whom was Rhadi Ben Abdesselam from Morocco, who was supposed to wear number 26.
For unknown reasons, Rhadi did not acquire his black marathon bib before the race, and instead was wearing his regularly assigned track and field bib number 185. Abebe Bikila traveled to Tokyo but was not expected to compete. He did enter the marathon.
He used the same strategy as in 1960: to stay with the leaders until the 20 kilometer point, then slowly increase his pace. After 15 km he only had company from Ron Clarke of Australia and Jim Hogan of Ireland.
Shortly before 20 km only Hogan was in contention and by 30 km, Bikila was 40 seconds in front of Hogan and two minutes in front of Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan in third place. He entered the Olympic stadium alone to the cheers of 70,000 spectators.
He finished the marathon in a new Olympic record time of 2:12:11.2; 4 minutes, 8 seconds in front of the silver medalist Basil Heatley of Great Britain. Kokichi Tsuburaya was third. He was the first athlete in history to win the Olympic marathon twice. After finishing he astonished the crowd: not appearing exhausted, he started a routine of stretching exercises.
Emperor Haile Selassie gave him a promotion to captain. In 1969, he was driving a Volkswagen in Addis Ababa when his car collided with another vehicle. Although Haile Selassie sent him to England for medical treatment, the doctors there could do nothing for him. He was paralyzed from the waist down. When he was brought back to Ethiopia on a stretcher, huge crowds gathered to welcome him home and cheer for him. Bikila turned to paraplegic sports, focusing on archery. He never walked again.
On October 25, 1973, Abebe Bikila died in Addis Ababa at the age of 41 from a cerebral hemorrhage, a complication related to the accident of four years earlier. He left behind his wife and four children. His funeral in Addis Ababa was attended by 75,000 people.
Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia proclaimed a national day of mourning for the country’s national hero. Newspapers throughout Africa eulogized him as an inspiration to their own distance runners, some of whom won gold medals in future Olympics. Bikila was interred at Saint Joseph’s Church Cemetery in Addis Ababa.