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Abebe Bikila

Abebe Bikila

23/10/1964

Track and Field

In Rome, Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila had been added to the team at the last minute and had then astonished the world by winning the Olympic title while competing in bare feet. In Tokyo, inadvertently, he delivered a victory that was every bit as amazing.

This time, there was no doubting his star quality, but his fitness was in great question. Forty days before the Olympic marathon was due to start, he had started to feel discomfort while on a training run in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. He decided to persevere, but then collapsed in agony and was taken to hospital.

Doctors quickly diagnosed acute appendicitis and, six weeks before his event, removed his appendix. Few gave him any chance of competing but, even as he remained in hospital, the indomitable Bikila started jogging in the courtyard. He travelled to Tokyo with the team, entered the marathon and, to general amazement, lined up at the start. Nobody was sure what to expect – and nobody predicted he would dominate in the way he did.

His tactics hadn’t changed since his gold medal of 1960 – to stay with the leaders for the first half of the race, then to gradually raise the tempo to a speed where no-one could stay with him. Sure enough, at a third of the way round the course, only Australia’s Ron Clarke and Ireland’s Jim Hogan were in touch and, by halfway, Bikila was on his own.

His lead got ever bigger and by the time he entered the Olympic Stadium, applaud Bikila across the line, stunned by both his margin of victory and by the lack of exhaustion. By the time Basil Heatley, of Great Britain, arrived to claim silver, Bikila was calmly doing stretching exercises, having recovered from his exertions.

He was acclaimed as a hero, once more, when he arrived back in Ethiopia. As a mark of his triumph, Bikila was presented with a car – a white Volkswagen Beetle.

Discover the best photos of Tokyo 1964

  • Vyacheslav Ivanov - 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games

    1964 Tokyo - Vyacheslav Ivanov (URS) 1st, on the top, and HILL Achim (EUA) 2nd. © 1964 / IOC

  • Opening Ceremony Tokyo 1964

    Yoshinori Sakai has lit the Olympic cauldron

    ©IOC

  • Opening Ceremony Tokyo 1964

    Yoshinori Sakai, the last torchbearer, stands next to Greek actress Aleka Katseli at a rehearsal prior to the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games

    ©Central-Press

  • Larisa Latynina (USSR)

    Larisa Latynina, with a bronze medal around her neck, on the third step of the podium after the beam competition of the Tokyo 1964 OG. On the top step is Czechoslovakia’s Vera Caslavska, while Tamara Manina (USSR) stands on the second step

    ©IOC

  • Yoyogi National Gymnasium

    An aerial view of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, circa 1965. Designed by Kenzo Tange to house the swimming and diving events in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, it is now a major venue for basketball and ice hockey. (Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • Anton Geesink

    Dutch judo champion Anton Geesink arrives back in his home town of Utrecht after winning the gold medal in the open event at the Tokyo Olympics, 6th November 1964. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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