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.