This is an article published in Hemmets Journal 1980, written by Tord Wallström.

You Remember the "Barefoot Runner" Abebe Bikila, Don't You? He Won Thanks to a Swede!

Africa stood on the winner's podium for the first time in the Olympic Games. It was Bikila, the incredible marathon runner, who took home the gold both in 1960 and in 1964 - the last time completely untrained after an appendix operation. Bikila became a hero - but a little of the glory also fell upon Onni Niskanen from Solna, who had been his tireless trainer.

By Tord Wallström

There was a press conference in Rome before the Olympics 1960 and someone asked the Swede Onni Niskanen, coach to the Ethiopian team, who he thought would win the marathon race. "That will be Abebe Bikila", replied Niskanen. And that was not just was he thought, he was completely sure of it.

The day after, Bikila crossed the finish line after a barefoot race as a sure winner on the time 2.15.16.2. Onni Niskanen, 71 years old, is one of the best-known Ethiopian-Swedes and has achieved a lot during his 35 years in Africa. His main duty during the last decade has been to organise and administrate aid work. He is however, best known as trainer of the unbeatable marathon runner Abebe Bikila. Through that, he is also the man who put Ethiopia on the winner's podium and paved the way for the whole of Africa in Olympic contexts. When Bikila won the marathon race in Rome it was a sensation - the elite sport had so far been reserved for the rich developed nations, but now the Western world had to get used to seeing more and more Africans on both running tracks and winner's podiums.

Mother Was From Värmland

Onni Niskanen is, as you can guess from his name, born in Finland, but his mother was a Värmlander and he came to Sweden already at three years of age. That was in 1913, just before the Russian revolution, and Onni grew up in Solna. In 1939 he and his three brothers went to Finland as volunteers in the Finnish "Winter War" and in 1941, he went there again. He fought in a mortar platoon at Hangö, when he was injured and ended up in hospital just a few weeks before the war ended. One of his feet was completely squashed and a shell splinter had to be left in there. Onni was on crutches and sticks for about a year and at first thought that the sports activities was definitely over for him. Then he took on the words of a doctor who had said "that is up to you", started training again and has not had any major discomfort from his foot. Though it does look a bit strange on X-ray films.

Onni was a Sports Officer at Svea Livgarde, when he received the offer to move to Ethiopia. Swedish officers had educated Ethiopian officers already before the war. In 1946, Carl Gustaf von Rosen and other Swedes built up the Ethiopian Air Force and Swedes are also working as teachers at the Life Guard's Cadet School and the Police Academy.

There were between 600 and 700 Swedes in Ethiopia. Officers, teachers, doctors, nurses and physical trainers. Onni thought that the assignment looked interesting, signed a two-year contract and went down there with his, now deceased, wife. This was in 1946 - and since then, Onni has remained in Ethiopia. Apart from the years 1954 - 1956 when he went to GIC (the Gymnastics Central Institute), he has only been back in Sweden for very short periods and it is during such a visit that we meet with him.

For two years, Onni was a Sports Officer at the Imperial Life Guard's Cadet School and Sports Instructor at the Air Force. Then he transferred to the Ministry of Education and Fine Arts.

"There was a tremendously big interest", says Onni, who participated in starting both the Ethiopian School Sports Federation, the national Sports Organisation and the Ethiopian Scouts Movement.

In the beginning, Onni was criticised for not investing in sports at elite level, but time was not right. Not until 1960, that is when Abebe Bikila came running along the finish in the Coliseum in Rome. Abebe was a member of the Life Guard, where Onni was responsible for the fitness training. Four - five of the boys went in for marathon with the aim set on an Olympics victory. Abebe Bikila's primary strength was his immense willpower. "He never wanted to see anyone in front of him", says Onni. Abebe was 176 cm tall with a light body of 58 kilos, full of energy. He also had the ability to listen to advice. In the beginning, he ran abrupt and jerky. With Onni's help, he learned to flow forwards. His leg movements were too high - Onni taught him to change that and save energy. Onni set up a varied training program and Abebe followed it perfectly. It was adjusted so that he would peak just in time for the Rome Olympics. The problem was that is was impossible to find suitable shoes. Abebe was also more comfortable without shoes, walked barefoot in Rome and so ran barefoot.

Good Friends

Onni Niskanen followed Abebe, the people's hero, around the world and they became very good friends. At the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, he was just as sure of who would win.

"At the training camp, I came down with appendicitis and to my horror, Bikila got the same symptoms. He also had to have an operation, it was acute, and that was just when he had started getting into top form. We arrived in Tokyo and Bikila had not run one step after the operation, only jogged".
But when the TV sports reporter Sven "Plex" Pettersson asked Onni who he thought would win the marathon, he again answered positively: "That will be Bikila!" "Then you can tell us what time he will get?" teased "Plex". "Of course", said Onni. "It will be 2.12".

When Abebe entered the Stadium and finished, he was clocked at 2.12.11,2. He won with 4 minutes before the second placed runner. And that was 34 days after his appendix operation!

At the Mexico Olympics in 1968, another Ethiopian, Mamo Wolde, who had also trained under Onni's guidance, won. In Munich 1972, Wolde came in third - in spite of an injury to his foot! In Montreal 1976, Ethiopia was among the African nations that withdraw.

Finnish Sauna

Abebe Bikila was often a guest at Niskanen's house in Addis Ababa and liked to take a sauna there - Onni actually had a genuine Finnish sauna.

"The Ethiopian Minister of Industry telephoned me in Addis Ababa a few years ago", says Onni. "He asked: 'Mr Niskanen, do you have a sauna?' Certainly" I answered. "I have had it for 15 years. 'Damn it", he said. "It turned out that he had been to Finland and he had, during a dinner, spoken to President Kekkonen. Kekkonen had asked: 'And how is Mr. Niskanen's sauna?' The Ethiopian Minister of Industry, who did not even know what a sauna was, stood there bewildered and he was of course irritated by the fact that Kekkonen knew more about Ethiopia than he himself did."

Onni Niskanen now feels at home in Ethiopia, after so many years. "However, when we went there we did not know more than we had read in Nordisk Familjebok (A Swedish Encyclopaedia). We took our entire home with us, even a common iron range. And we had taken with us two 5-kilo jars of honey - we did not think they had honey in Ethiopia. Then the luggage was delayed in Djibouti because of the railway strike and when we finally received it, most of the things were drenched in honey.

Annual Party

Onni Niskanen has meant a lot, not only to the Ethiopians but also to the foreign enclave in Addis Ababa. He formed a Swedish folk dance group and, in 1946, he organised a fundraising party for the Red Cross. The Emperor donated a riding horse as first prize in the tombola and the proceeds was 7.000 Ethiopian Dollars. Since then, this party has been held annually and expanded to comprise 29 nations and it raised 350.000 Ethiopian dollars over a Saturday and Sunday.

The aid work has taken more and more of Onni's time. He was General-Secretary of the Ethiopian Red Cross for many years and since 1967, he is the Executive Director for an education centre for leprosy, which is a unique organisation that also runs a hospital and a clinic. It is supported by the Swedish and the Norwegian Save the Children Foundations plus some 20 countries. Since 1970, Onni is the representative for the Swedish Save the Children Foundation in Ethiopia.

Onni has kept himself away from politics and does not want to talk about that. That is also a condition if you want to continue working in a country like Ethiopia.

Apart from all these larger projects, Onni is involved in a lot of other things. Like the DC-3 that Lions in Sweden previously donated for Carl Gustaf von Rosen's relief mission flights and which has now been repaired and equipped with new radio equipment. Or like the sports shop that Abebe Bikila's surviving relatives run in Addis Ababa and which will receive aid from a Lions' district. Abebe was injured in a car accident and was in a wheelchair for a long time, until he died from internal bleedings in 1977, 44 years old. He had supported 16 people, apart from wife and five children he also had four adopted children and other relatives. They only get a small pension now but the sports shop can improve their situation.

"There are a lot of efforts going into for example education in Ethiopia", says Onni. The country has been split into groups of villages with local governing offices.

The famine, which started in 1973, has been terrible and Onni has seen many horror scenes in the affected areas. However, since aid has started pouring in there seems to be an improvement. Heaps of corn has arrived but the transports are still a bottleneck and more lorries are needed.

Onni himself has been running long distance races and he has benefited from some other sports, too, like flying and driving. He got his pilot's certificate and for some time he had his own airplane. He has also been driving in motor rallies for ten years. He has had many adventures with crocodiles, eagles and other wild animals.

He still devotes his leisure time to training Ethiopian marathon runners. "We have 7 - 8 very good runners now".