Olympics History >> Rome 1960 >> Key Moments

Rome 1960 - Key Moments

Bikila -- the shoeless wonder runner

The image of Abebe Bikila's arrival, winner of the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome running barefoot, will always remain engraved in golden letters in the history of the Games.

The 28-year-old Ethiopian, an Imperial guardsman to Emperor Haile Selassie, became the first African to reach the highest point on the Olympic winners' podium.

The achievement of the barefoot runner seemed all the more poignant since, almost a quarter of a century beforehand, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had deployed his troops from exactly the same spot as the marathon finish line.

Ironically, the troops were following orders to conquer Ethiopia.

Bikila, who was running in only his third marathon, went one stage further by establishing a new world record with a time of 2 hours, 15 minutes and 16.2 seconds, improving the mark set by the Soviet Union's Sergi Popov by 8 tenths of a second.

Running by torchlight

The marathon was planned to be run at night, and with the Italian military placing torches along the route, the course was given a mystical air. Thousands of spectators lined the streets, prompting the organizers to take measures so that competitors could run freely.

At the 18 kilometer mark, two men began to emerge from the pack: Bikila and the Moroccan Rhadi Ben Abdesselem -- the favorite to win the race, and a former runner in French colors before decolonization.

Both men ran side-by-side, but with no real mutual acknowledgement.

It was at around 1500m from the finish line, in front of the Obelisk of Axum -- plundered from Ethiopia by Italian troops -- that Bikila made a decisive move.

Almost put off his stride by a wayward motorcyclist, Bikila cut the tape with plenty of time to spare -- almost 200m and 25 seconds in front of his Moroccan rival.

Following his victory Bikila modestly said: "In the Imperial guard there are many other runners who could compete just as well." Yet a second victory four years later in Tokyo proved, without doubt, the superiority and unique talent of the Ethiopian athlete.

Copyright 2008 Agence France-Presse.

Moment in Time