Abebe Bikila (August 7, 1932 – October 25, 1973) was a two-time Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia. He was the first black African in history to win a gold medal in the Olympics. A stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honor.
From Duvbo IK's Annual Magazine 1960:
Onni Niskanen tells the story about the marathon winner in Rome.
How to train Olympic winners
Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian soldier at the Imperial Life Guards, who won the XVII Olympic marathon race, was the biggest sensation during the Rome Olympics, according to many people. Not even backed, except by me, he ran a race that astounded most people and stepped from Ethiopian local competitions straight into the world élite. Not only did he erase Emil Zatopek's Olympic record from Helsinki by 8.47 minutes, but also the Russian Popov's "phantom time" of 2..15,17,0 was erased by the unbelievably great running Abebe.
If needed, Bikila could have pressed the time even more. He put in the real spurt only some km from the finish, when he passed the Obelisk of Axum, an Italian war trophy that they had transported from Ethiopia, with great difficulties, during the Italian occupation.
If it had not been for a small misunderstanding in planning, the record time would most certainly have been even lower. Before the race, I had very carefully drummed the starting numbers of the 5 - 6 best competitors into the head of my two runners, Abebe Bikila and Abebe Wakjira. This was to let them know where the "big guns" were during the race. They were Popov, Rhadi, O'Gorman, Magee, Vorobiev, and a few others, whom I expected would be in the first lot during the race. After a lot of repetitions, my boys knew these starting numbers by heart. However, it turned out that Rhadi had not got his starting number according to the programme, but got permission to use the same number he had in the 10.000 metres race. That confused Abebe Bikila. Morocco had three men in the marathon and Abebe did not understand that it was Radhi, who ran together with him for the main part of the race. He thought that it was one of the other Moroccans keeping up with him, so he was waiting for Radhi to show up further on. Therefore, he saved his strength the last five kilometres and did not run faster than necessary. He was prepared to put in an extra effort if the Moroccan hot favourite Radhi showed up. The Italian doctor, who examined Abebe after the race, had only one word to say: "Fantastico!" His pulse was 88, his eyes bright, no signs of tiredness and not one blister on his bare feet. On my question, how far he could have continued at the same pace, Abebe answered: 10 - 15 km "ganano" (longer).
That Abebe Bikila won was not a surprise to me. I had pre-warned some newspaper reporters, but most of them did not dare to believe my tip-off. A Danish newspaper and the Finnish "Huvudstadsbladet" had an article about the race winner that I tipped them about, a couple of days before the race.
About the training and the preparations for the race? Well, first, I would like to say that I have not often worked with a better athlete student. He has strong willpower and willingness to train. He has been into sports for a couple of years, played basketball and run 5.000 and 10.000 metres a few times. In this year's Military Championship Games, he came second in the marathon race, with the time 2 hours 37 minutes, which was his personal best when I took him on for special training.
We then started a training focused on the Olympic Games. All candidates for the Olympic Games had special training programmes and they could show their form at continuous weekly competitions. During the last two months before the Olympic Games, the best of them were in a training camp, where it was tough training with two training sessions per day.
I noticed, at an early stage, that the long distance runners were the ones with the best possibilities and I concentrated especially on their training. As for the sprinters, I had an American, Leroy Walker, to help me with the training. Two Ethiopian instructors, educated at GCI (The Gymnastics Central Institute) in Sweden, also worked focused on the sprinters and the mid-distance runners.
Cross-country running sessions of 1 to 1˝ hours were part of the daily training for the long distance runners, but not some casual jogging. Pace training, pace training and more pace training. Speed running for 4-500 metres at highest speed, up rather steep slopes, varied with a bit slower running in between.
The same thing when it came to track training. Pace! Six to eight 1.500 metres races, to start with in 4minutes 20 to 25, then they had to press the times downwards. They also ran on the track for 30 - 40 minutes, with varied pace. Sometime full speed through the bends, sometimes on the straights. Road running was done twice per week and on distances that were increased day by day. Sauna baths twice a week was included in the training, as well as massage after the road running. Below are the results and times for the marathon runners' road training:
18/6 20 km no timing
23/6 25 km no timing
28/6 32 km in 1.45,00 (3.13 min/km)
30/6 32 km in 1..46,30 (3.16 min/km)
8/7 36 km in 2.00,45 (3.32 min/km) uphill a lot
25/7 42 km in 2.21,23 (3.21 min/km) selection for Olympic Games, uphill a lot
5/8 32 km in 1.42,16 (3.10 min/km)
20/8 20 km in 1.02,15 (3.07 min/km) in Rome
26/8 20 km in 1.01,30 (3.05 min/km) in Rome
30/8 20 km in 1.01,45 (3.05 min/km) in Rome
4/9 20 km in 1.01,05 (3.03 min/km) in Rome
10/9 42.195 km (the marathon race) in 2.15,16,2 (3.12,4 min/km)
During the month before race day, when we were in Rome, my two marathon runners ran parts of the marathon track 4 - 5 times, 20 km every time. Sometimes they ran the first part of the track, later the middle part and a couple of times the last 20 kilometres. This way they came to knew the whole track, all the difficulties and they did not have to hesitate about the where the track went.
I let them run alternately with or without shoes. I myself followed behind Abebe Bikila by car and studied style, foot stance and counted step speed. My brother Arne was in another car and studied Abebe Wakjira, who was always behind from the beginning. It appeared that Abebe Bikila was 5 - 6 steps slower per minute with shoes and his running style was not as perfect as when he ran barefoot.
After a few similar trials, we decided to let both of them run barefoot in the marathon race. The race took place in the evening, so the risk of hot tarmac was completely gone. After the decision, the runners ran barefoot all the time to harden the soles of their feet. Even in the Olympic Village, they had to walk around without shoes.
Up until three days before the race, both runners trained daily. In the early stage, they trained twice per day, but during the last week, it was cut down to one training session per day, alternatively in the stadium, cross-country or on the marathon track.
During the training period in Rome, I often added speed training. They ran 400 and 1.500 metres races, with a couple of minutes rest between each race, and 5.000 metres a couple of times. Abebe Bikila did 14.36 on 5.000 metres barefoot, without exhausting himself. That is not bad for a marathon runner!
On the race day, Abebe Bikila had orders to take it rather easy the first 25 kilometres and, if you look at the times in this world leading marathon race, you can see that he followed the instructions to the letter. Below are the official intermediate times of the race.
5 km 15,35 min = 15,35
10 km 31,07 min = 15,32
15 km 48,02 min = 16,55
20 km 1.02,39 hrs = 14,37
25 km 1.20,47 hrs = 14,08
30 km 1.34,29 hrs = 15,58
35 km 1.50,27 hrs = 7,31
42,195 km 2.15,16,2 = 17,18
Most of the hot favourites were left behind, due to the high speed between 20 and 30 kilometres. Radhi was the only one who could keep up, but the speed was too much even for him. That was obvious as he let go immediately when Abebe Bikila put in a spurt on the last kilometres. He never stood a chance!
After the race, I asked the happy triumphant victor how he felt when Radhi (who he did not know it was) started to drop behind. "When I sped up, inside the city wall, I heard less and less of the clattering footsteps behind me", said Abebe, "and when I increased the speed more, they disappeared. It was not necessary to turn around and look", he continued, "for if you have heard these footsteps behind you during a whole hour, then you know what it means when they fade away. I was happy. I did not fear a spurt fight, but it felt good to get rid of the stubborn Moroccan. And thank you, Major Onni, for what you have done!"
I was overjoyed by Abebe Bikila's victory, which means so much to my continuous work within sports in Ethiopia, but I must say that my joy was just as big for Abebe Wakjira's seventh place. He is 39 years old and before we left Addis, he had 2.30,26 as his best time at marathon, which by all means is not bad, and with that time, he was second after Abebe Bikila in the qualifying race. Some people thought it unnecessary to take him with us to Rome, but I protested and insisted that he had not finished his training. "Give me another month and you will see that he will improve. He is old and needs longer time to get in shape", I said. During the training period in Rome his form chart rose, as I had predicted, and when the marathon race went off, he was at the top of his capacity. He had always had problems keeping up with fast speed in the beginning, contrary to Abebe Bikila, and he took it easy in the Rome race as well. Maybe a bit too easy! He gradually advanced towards the lead and passed several of the favourites. He also had plenty of power left after the race and confessed that he probably had been too cautious the first 20 kilometres.
Unfortunately, I had to leave two of my best runners at home, due to illness. One marathon runner, who in fact was the one who won the military championship marathon race last spring when Abebe Bikila came second, and a very good 10.000 metres runner. The marathon runner, Besha Teklu, would certainly not have done as well as Abebe Bikila, but he was considerably better than the 7th placed Wakjira.
I have to tell a story about the 10.000 metres runner. He was ready for Rome. One day, when we were at the training camp, all of them had to go in to Addis for fitting of the Olympic costume. They got bus fare for the 50 km long trip and all was well. A few days after, Wami Berede, the best 10.000 metres runner, came down with a severe cold that kept him in bed for over a week. That was really bad luck and meant that one of my trump cards was gone. Some time later I heard that, instead of taking the bus in to Addis for the fitting of the costume, he had run the whole way there and back, 100 kilometres! He had done it with the best of intentions and, as he thought, by this 100 km run, train his stamina even more. Instead, he ruined his chances. The training programme I had set up was very tough itself and to run 100 km in one day, Saturday, when according to the programme he should take it easier than weekdays, was pure madness. It was probably also the cause of the cold that he got. To get back to Abebe Bikila, I would like to tell you that he has invitations to compete in several places: Spain, Argentina, Japan (two invites), Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and other places. It is impossible to accept all invites, but he will participate in 3 - 4 competitions abroad during next year. Since he is good at all distances from 5.000 metres upwards, I would rather see that he takes part in some races over shorter distances and a maximum of two marathons next year. It is also possible that we will come to Sweden!
Abebe Bikila's victory has in the highest degree opened up the possibilities for the continuous work with the athletes in Ethiopia. The interest in sports and especially long distance running has increased considerably after the triumph in the Rome Olympics and it is not difficult to get the boys to train anymore. We look forward with every hope towards the big tasks - the African Olympics 1962 and Tokyo 1964.