Below is an article published in the Swedish edition of Runner's World No. 11, 2008, and is reproduced here with permission from the author.
Author: Ulf Wickbom
It all started at 2.000 metres altitude, in Ethiopia. That is where the foundation for the dominance in long distance running was laid. However, the Swede Onni Niskanen was also in this picture. He raised the first talents to become international stars. Abebe Bikila had a training based on Niskanen's experience from Duvbo IK, GIH (The Swedish University for Gym Teachers) and Vålådalen. The Swedish broad athletics games were the model used when Niskanen organised the schools sports programmes and the Governmental activities in Ethiopia.
This emerges from a new book about the barefoot runner Abebe Bikila. The book is written by the British foreign correspondent Tim Judah. He has done an extensive research and was obviously fascinated by Onni Niskanen; athlete, adventurer and ladies' man. Niskanen was part of the Swedish aid in Ethiopia, which started during the 1940s and comprised close to 700 people.
One of Niskanen's Ethiopian colleagues, Belete Ergetie, now lives with his Swedish wife Barbro in Sweden. He and Niskanen were educated together at the then called GCI (now GIH) in Stockholm. Niskanen became the coach to the long distance runners from the Emperor Haile Selassie's Life Guard. Belete Ergetie got the Air Force sprinters on his lot.
"Since I had to show them what to do, I became a rather good sprinter myself", he remembers with a laugh. He ran 100 metres in 10,5 seconds and was close to qualifying to the Olympic Games in Rome 1960. He was also meant to be the leader for the Ethiopian team. That did not happen. After some conflicts, the Swede Niskanen was appointed leader. When he Ethiopians complained to the Emperor, he responded: "He is more Ethiopian than you are".
Niskanen proved to be the right man. He had not only trained his talents, he had for many years worked to get the poor little country of Ethiopia into the international athletics circle. He was accredited to the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952 (as a journalist for the Ethiopian Herald) and witnessed Emil Zatopek's three victories at 5.000, 10.000 metres, and marathon. Ethiopian runners participated at Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952 but with modest results.
The breakthrough was Rome 1960. The organisers had set up the marathon race as a mix between gladiator games and a Verdi opera. The last kilometre of the track followed the ancient military route Via Appia Antica. Every ten metres there stood a uniformed "bersagliere" (an Italian military Sharpshooter) carrying a torch in his hand. The torch spread its flickering light over the antique ruins in the background.
A journalist described the dramatic scene: the little moustachioed brown-skinned man is running so lightly that his feet scarcely seem to touch the ground. Most of the competitors have taken some refreshment meanwhile at a snack bar beside the course, which purveys blueberry juice, glucose and similar fortifiers. But Abebe refuses any nourishment. Via Appia Antica is lined with dense crowds on either side. Women are to be seen kneeling and crossing themselves as the runners flit past, wraith-like."
"In athletics, there are no 'spontaneous generations'", Robert Parienté, a journalist at the French sports magazine L'Equipe, wrote. New stars seldom come out of nowhere. However, this was not a normal evening in the history of sports. With only a few kilometres left of the race, the almost unknown Abebe Bikila took the lead. Han won on 2.15 - 8 minutes under Emil Zatopek's Olympic record from 1952.
Niskanen had told Bikila to sprint at a symbolic place. There was an obelisk that Mussolini's soldiers had looted during the reputable war against Ethiopia in 1935. Ethiopia has had their revenge. The black Africa had taken their first gold medal in the Olympic Games. An almost completely unknown runner without shoes had come out of nowhere and struck the world with amazement.
Olympic Games in Rome had three big names. Wilma Rudolph from the USA stole the three gold medals in the sprinter races and won everyone's hearts. Livio Cerutti took gold in the 200 metres race and established the fashion to run in sunglasses. However, Bikila became a legend, since he repeated his triumph in Tokyo four years later, in spite of having had an appendectomy only six weeks earlier.
His life and career had it all: a poor childhood, breakthrough and fame, before he fell a victim to all the attention and took to alcohol, women and fast cars. Bikila had a car accident, was paralysed and he died in 1973. But he will always be remembered as the first in a long line of runners from Ethiopia, Kenya and other East-African countries.
There are many explanations to this dominance at long distance running. The children often run many kilometres to and from school. The runners have the possibility to train at high altitude. Athletics is a way to support yourself. However, without Onni Niskanen, Abebe Bikila, Mamo Wolde and the other big names had remained talents at their home ground. Niskanen introduced new training methods. He organised the athletics movement in the country. He purposefully built up his runners to international level.
Niskanen was born in Helsinki in 1910, but already in 1913, the family moved to Stockholm, Sweden. Onni and two of his brothers whole-heartedly devoted themselves to athletics. Onni remained a fiery spirit within Duvbo IK through his whole life. He was a good long distance runner with 34 minutes as his best time at 10.000 meters. That was seldom enough when it came to cross-country competitions between Sweden and Finland. According to Tim Judah's book, Onni Niskanen started thinking about other training methods at that time. It is possible that the Swedish term "Fartlek" (Speed Play) was developed by Niskanen. This form of running was disclosed when Gunder Hägg trained at Gösta Olander's in Vålådalen. Niskanen can have been first. Irrespective of who started it, Niskanen introduced the Swedish model of broad sports to Ethiopia. Schools championships increased the interest for sports and panned out talents that could be developed.
Tim Judah tells in a convincing way that Bikila could never have made it without Niskanen.
Niskanen went to Finland, as a volunteer in both wars against the Soviet Union, during 1934 and 1944. Later, he went to Ethiopia when Haile Selassie asked for foreign aid and did not want to be dependant on a great power. Sweden had kept missionaries and aid workers in the country since the 1920s. They now started up a big venture to develop the Ethiopian Government, the Defence and the education system.
In the mid 1950s, Bikila was a soldier in the Emperor's Life Guard. At that time, he was mainly interested in football, which was played barefoot, but Niskanen saw that the youth had capacity. Bikila often came running from his home, 20 kilometres from Addis Ababa, in the morning and he ran the same distance back home in the evening. A training schedule that is printed in Judah's book states weekly distances of 150 - 200 kilometres, split on interval training, uphill training and long sessions of up to 50 kilometres. Niskanen insisted on Bikila putting quality before quantity. Bikila seemed to have the capacity for everything.
Judah has thoroughly studied the inner secrets of marathon races. In the marathon expert Alain Lunzenfichter, he found a reflection on the two parts of the marathon race. For the first 30 kilometres, it is a question of having stamina, i.e. the ability to keep a fast pace without burning yourself out. After 30 kilometres, it is only a question of endurance, the capacity to stand pain. More poetically, these two halves could be called the prologue and the monologue.
Bikila was a phenomenon concerning capacity to run as if tiredness and pain did not exist. He was also admired for his ability to shut everything out and concentrate completely on his own running during a race. He almost never had to turn around to keep track of the competitors. He knew, almost instinctively, where they were.
Onni Niskanen contributed with methods, discipline and organisation to provide scope for all this. From the photos in the book, he appears to have a playful sense of humour and a never-ending care for his adepts. Bikila had a massage after every training session. One photo shows Niskanen washing Bikila's soon world famous feet.
Belete Ergetie's wife, Barbro, has opened an antiquarian bookshop in Sörmland. There is a book fair in September every year. This year, Onni Niskanen's nephew, Ulf, arrived with a pack of Tim Judah's book. Almost 50 years after the magic night in Rome, a release party was held in Mellösa. The legend is alive, or shall we say the legends? Judah's book is about both Bikila and Niskanen.