Monday, July 23, 2012

Runners You Should Know: Abebe Bikila, Part 2

This post is an addendum to my last post about Abebe Bikila. In the course of researching that post I came across a lot of information that was fascinating (to me, at least) but only peripherally related to the story, so I decided to put it here. Enjoy.

  • Ethiopians use a patronymic naming convention in which the first name is a given name and the last name is the name of the person's father. So Abebe was named Abebe [son of] Bikila, his father was named Bikila [son of] Demissie, and his father's name would have been Demissie [son of] [his father's name]. 
  • The Emperor whose Imperial Guard Abebe joined was Haile Selassie I, the last Emperor of Ethiopia. Selassie was the last in a dynasty that traced its line at least back to the 13th century, and according to legend, back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba over 225 generations. 
  • Haile Selassie I is revered by the Rastafari movement as the reincarnate Jesus Christ. He took the name Haile Selassie when he became Emperor; his previous name was Ras Tafari Makonnen, which is where the Rastafari movement gets its name. Although he visited Jamaica in 1966 (receiving a predictably warm reception by thousands of Rastafari waiting in a cloud of marijuana smoke), he never publicly confirmed or denied his status as their messiah. 
  • When Abebe was chosen for the Rome Olympics, he and his teammate Abebe Wakjira were taken to meet the Emperor, who asked (in front of them) "How can such thin people win?"  (Abebe was 5'10'' and 126 pounds).
  • Abebe and Wakjira were each issued two suits and $150 in pocket money. When they got to Rome they went shopping and bought T-shirts and shoes (but not running shoes). 
  • There were political overtones to Abebe's victory in Rome. Italy under Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia in 1935, causing the Emperor to go into exile in England for several years. Italian troops were only expelled from Ethiopia in 1943, just 17 years before the Rome Olympics. Abebe took the lead in the race as he passed the 4th-century obelisk of Axum which had been taken from Ethiopia to Rome during the Italian occupation.
  • In 2010 (50 years after the Rome Olympics), Ethiopian runner Siraj Gena won the Rome Marathon. Before crossing the finish line Siraj took his shoes off and ran the last 300 meters barefoot in honor of Abebe. 
  • After the Rome Olympics, Abebe's coach decided that he should start wearing shoes. Abebe eventually succumbed to the pressure from his coach and raced in shoes at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. 

  • The Vibram FiveFinger Bikila (Vibram's first running-specific shoe) was named for Abebe. 

  • After the Tokyo Olympics Abebe was given a white VW Beetle. In 1969 he was in an accident which left him a paraplegic for the rest of his life. After the crash he began competing in paraplegic archery competitions. He died of complications from the accident in 1973 at the age of 41. Abebe had this to say about his life: "Men of success meet with tragedy. It was the will of God that I won the Olympics, and it was the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily."

Read my other posts about Runners You Should Know

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