“It took a million Italians to invade Ethiopia but only one Ethiopian soldier to conquer Rome.”

Legend has it that the grandson of Noah settled Ethiopia after the great flood. Years later the Queen of Sheba, ruler of Ehtiopia, visits king Solomon and bears his a son, Menelik, who she takes back to Ethiopia. Menelik travels to Jerusalem as a grown man, and returns to Ethiopia with one thousand descendants of the tribes of Israel, as well as the Arc of the Covenant— thus began a Solemnic dynasty that ended hundreds of of generations laters with Haille Selassie. 

These days, however, Ethiopia is most famous for fostering the greatest athletes in the world, a dynasty that began with Abebe Bikila. 

Bikila grew up in on a farm in rural Ethiopia, outside of Addis, the capital city of Ethiopia. As an adult, he joined the Imperial Guard in the  and ran twenty kilometers to and from work each day. This caught the attention of Onni Niskanen, the Swedish conditioning coach of the Imperial Guard, 

Bikila grew up on a farm in rural Ethiopia, just outside of Addis, the capital city. As an adult, he joined the Imperial Guard, and ran to and from work in Addis each day. His commuting caught the attention of Onni Niskanen, the Swedish conditioning coach for the Imperial Guard, who decided to train Bikila for the Olympic marathon. 

Niskanen’s coaching inspiration came from various sources. He worked with Bikila on the runner’s form, settling his flailing limbs. He had Bikila alternate between days of long intervals on the track— usually 1500m in four minutes with five minutes of recovery— and long runs of thirty kilometers— usually across the soft surfaces of hilly Ethiopian farm land. Most of the time, Bikila ran barefoot. 

In 1960, he won the marathon in the Armed Forces Championships at Addis in 2:21, faster than the Olympic record. A month later, he boarded a plane for the Rome Olympics. 

When Bikila and Niskanen arrived, Bikila couldn’t find a comfortable pair of shoes, so he sauntered to the starting line, relaxed and confident, without any. The gun fired, and he ran barefoot through the cobbled streets under Italy’s hot, evening sun. He hung in the lead pack for sixteen miles, then broke away from the field. Only one runner, Rhadi Ben Abdesselam of Morocco, stayed with him. With five hundred meters to go, Abdesselam still hung on Bikila’s shoulder, so Bikila released a furious barefooted kick and tore away from his opponent. He ran 2:15:41, beating by Abdesselam by twenty five seconds, setting a world record, and winning black Africa’s first Olympic Gold Medal. After finishing, he did some calisthenics and claimed he could have run another ten kilometers. 

Upon returning to Ethiopia, Abebe received a house, a car, a driver (Abebe couldn’t drive) and a promotion from Emperor Haile Selassie as a thank-you. 

In 1961, he won marathons in Greece, Japan and Slovakia. He also weathered an attempted coup d’etat while Haile Celassie was visiting Brazil. 

In 1963, he ran the Boston Marathon but, like so many before him, fell prey to the bitter New England wind and Newton Hills. He set off at world record pace, but finished only fifth in 2:25.

In 1964, he lined up for the Tokyo Olympic Marathon, despite getting his appendix out a month earlier. This time, he wore shoes. He ran behind the lead pack for the first ten kilometers, then increased the pace. By fifteen kilometers he trailed only Australian Ron Clarke and Irishman Jim Hogan. At twenty kilometers he took the lead and in the next fifteen kilometers charged to a two minute lead. By the time he finished— in another world record of 2:12:11— he had put three minutes on second place. Again, he celebrated by doing calisthenics.

Upon returning to Ethiopia, he received another promotion. 


He won three marathons in the next two years, then injured himself in 1967. He stared the Olympic Marathon in Mexico City, but could only run ten miles. Before dropping out, he ordered his training partner and subordinate Mamo Wolde to win the race, which he did. While Bikila never ran another marathon, Wolde won silver in the Munich Olympics behind Frank Shorter. Thus began Ethiopia’s Marathoning Legacy.

Abebe’s success comes from a combination of factors. Like Hanne’s Kolehmainen, who grew thick skin toughened by the harsh, Arctic environment, Bikila grew massive lungs in the hot, thin African air. Like Tom Longboat, who relied his legs for transportation, Bikila earned his legs commuting twenty kilometers each way. Like Gundar Hagg, who sped in heavy boots through the hilly snow drifts of Northern Sweden, Bikila frolicked barefoot across soft, undulating farmland of Ethiopia. 

Bikila’s coach took inspiration from Hagg’s fartleks, preferring Bikila run barefoot through the hills to build resistance, but added formality and awareness of pacing with intervals. Even in this, though, he strayed from the normal, endless four-hundred meters repeats and had Bikila run longer repetitions with little rest. 

Through this perfect assembly of environment, upbringing, and training, Abebe Bikila was able to provide the final ingredient for a marathoning dynasty: a hero, in whose footprints to follow.