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Barefoot Bikila set the standard for Ethiopian athletes

Abebe BikilaBy Kent Bush / Publisher
Posted Aug 14, 2017
News Star

Everything about Bikila’s gold medal is a cause of pride for Ethiopians. He was the first black man from Africa to win a gold medal. He did it in the only country that ever controlled Ethiopia. He did it all barefoot.

When my wife and I adopted a little boy from Ethiopia, one of the things that was important to us was to make sure he fit in well here without losing that part of himself that will always be Ethiopian.

We have had to overcome some challenges to achieve that goal. First, Dawit didn’t have a lot of culture of his own. He was three when his mother relinquished him. He had limited language – like most toddlers. He was taken from an orphanage in his home area in Tigray – northeast Ethiopia, near Eritrea – and moved to a foster care center in the capitol of Addis Ababa. Everything was different.

When we adopted Dawit he could barely express his desire to eat and use the restroom and he could count to eight in English. It was fun at the guesthouse where we took custody of him to watch him count his way down the stairs. There were 10 stairs from the top floor to the parking lot. He would count and say, ”…six, seven, eight…” and then he would leap to the bottom since he had run out of numbers.

He had no language, so keeping a language wasn’t a key cultural component of his life. He had no cultural experiences he would ever remember that weren’t tied to his time as an orphan.

It was hard to identify any way to maintain his cultural identity. But there is one way, and it is a good one – food.

It is always fun to head over to the Queen of Sheba restaurant in Oklahoma City. The owners are great people and the food is always amazing.

When you walk in the door, it is not at all dissimilar to being in a restaurant in Addis Ababa. The look and feel of the restaurant are very true to the culture.

But the best thing about Ethiopian food is its distinct spice combinations that creates smells that don’t come from anything else I have ever experienced.

When Dawit walks in the door, he takes a deep breath and inhales the smells that take him back to his first few years.

The restaurant is also a meeting place for the small population who have similar backgrounds to Dawit. It is rare that we visit and don’t find a person or a family from Ethiopia enjoying food that reminds them of their homeland.

The last time we went, a great younger guy was bringing guests to enjoy his favorite food. He and Dawit got to talk for a little while.

He found out that Dawit liked sports and after a brief conversation he told Dawit he needed to learn about an Ethiopian sports legend.

His name was Abebe Bikila.

The amazing event happened 10 years before I was born, but it has to be one of the best sports stories I have ever heard.

Bikila wasn’t even on the Ethiopian Olympic team that was headed to Rome. But one of the team’s marathon runners hurt himself playing soccer and Bikila took his spot.

The man who wasn’t even on the team until just before the games ran with the leaders. Soon, he was on a record pace. In fact, the top 15 finishers that night broke the standing Olympic Marathon record.

Bikila ran past the vestiges of fascism the outlived Benito Mussolini, the only man who was ever able to colonize Ethiopia. As other African countries fell under French or British rule, Ethiopia maintained its independence. But World War II saw Italy and Mussolini take over the country with previously uninterrupted independence.

The fascists controlled the country for about five years before they were finally forced out. As Bikila made his way through the course, one of the icons he passed was the Obelisk of Axum, an 80-foot tall stone structure usually used to mark the graves of royalty or nobility.

Axum is a region of Ethiopia and the Italians had plundered the obelisk during their occupation of the country. I can’t imagine what Bikila felt as he ran past a piece of his home country’s history that had been stolen by invaders more than two decades earlier.

As the runners neared the final stage of the race, Bikila owned the lead.

Interestingly enough, he didn’t own any shoes. The pair that Bikila trained in after arriving in Rome were ruined and the new ones made available to him were causing blisters.

So he competed as he trained – in bare feet.

In the final stretch, Bikila outpaced the favorites and his bare feet slapped the pavement over and over until he won the first Olympic gold medal for a black African.

In a day and age where athletes have only the best equipment and training, it is hard to imagine a man running 26.2 miles in his bare feet for a win. Shockingly enough, the unlikely hero, overcame appendicitis six weeks before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and became the first person to repeat as the Olympic marathon champion.

His heroic tale didn’t end as well as it began. He was partially paralyzed in a car accident in 1968. He was able to continue to compete and win a 25km cross country sledge competition after he was paralyzed, but complications from his injuries claimed his life in 1973.

It was almost 50 years after Bikila’s first gold medal run that Italy finally returned and Ethiopia replaced the obelisk near its original home.

Everything about Bikila’s gold medal is a cause of pride for Ethiopians. He was the first black man from Africa to win a gold medal. He did it in the only country that ever controlled Ethiopia. He did it all barefoot.

It was fun to listen to Nate tell Dawit with pride about the best athlete ever from Ethiopia and challenge him to compete in a way that would honor Bikila.

Culture is important. Dawit will be co-opted into two that he can call his own. He will have a lot to be proud of.


  1. Thank you Mr. Bush for an excellent article and for being a good father to Dawit.

    Abebe Bikila is by far one of my favorite Ethiopian ever. He is the greatest Ethiopian of all them. He is not only the greatest PRIDE of Ethiopia/Africa but also the world. He showed to the whole world that material poverty can’t, shouldn’t and will not impede a determined, positive, honest and hardworking individual from aiming high, shooting for the stars and from securing the grandest and greatest accomplishments.

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