The Roar
The Roar


11 days to Rio: The barefoot marathon runner

Ethiopian Abebe Bikila became the first East African to win a gold medal, and he did it without wearing any shoes. (Public domain image)
25th July, 2016

Nowadays, the Olympic marathon is dominated by athletes from East Africa, but before Rome 1960, no-one from the continent’s eastern countries had even won a medal. When Abebe Bikila broke that duck, he did so in extraordinary circumstances.

Bikila arrived in Rome from Ethiopia for the Games with only had a single pair of running shoes, which were quickly ruined during his training regime. Rather than wear a new pair – which gave him blisters – Bikila decided to run barefoot, just as he often did back home.


Making the journey to Italy would have been strange for Bikila, a member of the Imperial Army in Ethiopia. Just a couple of decades earlier, the capital of Addis Ababa had been conquered by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and 30,000 civilians massacred.

Mussolini and fascism might have officially been gone from Italy by the time the Olympics rolled around, but remnants of the era were evident. Indeed, the marathon followed the triumphant path taken by Mussolini which snaked past some of the city’s historic monuments.

It was on that path that Bikila announced himself to the world. No-one had given the slim, shoeless Ethiopian any chance when he lined up at the start of the race, but when he was a part of a breakaway group, commentators started to take notice.

When he crossed the line in a world-record time of two hours, 15 minutes and 16 seconds, pundits were left with little choice but to acknowledge the athletic prowess of Bikila.

He was later asked why he ran barefoot, and Bikila provided a telling answer: “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”

Just for good measure, he then became thew first person to defend the Olympic marathon title in Tokyo four years later. By then, he’d got himself a new pair of shoes.


Be sure to follow The Roar as we look back on some of the most memorable moments in Olympic history – be they weird and wacky or brilliant and significant – and count down the days until the Rio Olympics opening ceremony.

The Roar’s countdown to the Rio Olympics

50 days to go: Australia’s first Olympian, Edwin Flack
49 days to go: Brazil capitulate at the 2012 Olympics
48 days to go: Blood in the water during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics
47 days to go: Daniel Carroll, the man who won rugby gold with Australia and America
46 days to go: Margaret Abbott – the golfer who didn’t know she had won gold
45 days to go: Where did all the amateurs go?
44 days to go: Australia’s oarsome foursome
43 days to go: When Korea stood as one
42 Days to go: Oscar Swahn, the oldest Olympian
41 days to go: Edith Bosch – the Olympian not known for her medals
40 days to go: Jane Saville’s heartbreaking Sydney Olympics
39 days to go: Herb Elliot dominates in Rome 1960
38 days to go: Teofilo Stevenson, the boxer who might have beaten Ali
37 days to go: Betty Cuthbert steals the show in Melbourne
36 days to go: Jesse Owens’ heroic performance in Berlin
35 days to go: Eric the Eel steals Sydney’s heart
34 days to go: What happened to Cassius Clay’s gold medal?
33 days to go: Australia’s equestrian brilliance at Barcelona
32 days to go: The Olympic sports which are no longer with us
31 days to go: Debbie Flintoff-King wins on the line
30 days to go: The dominance of basketball’s Dream Team
29 days to go: Nadia Comenaci scores gymnastics’ first-ever perfect score
28 days to go: The man who stopped for a duck
27 days to go: The upset of the Sydney Olympics
26 days to go: Murray Rose’s scintilating Melbourne performance
25 days to go: Greg Louganis’ heroic comeback win
24 days to go: Fencing turns to duelling in Paris
23 days to go: Dawn Fraser’s flag-stealing shenanigans
22 days to go: The most prolific Olympic competitor
21 days to go: Duncan Armstrong’s underdog win in Seoul
20 days to go: Johnny Weissmuller: A brilliant swimmer and Hollywood actor
19 days to go: Majorie Jackson – the Lithgow Flash
18 days to go: Larisa Latynina, the most successful female Olympian
17 days to go: Dimitrios Loundras, the child who won an Olympic medal
16 days to go: Roy Jones Jr is robbed of an Olympic gold
15 days to go: Shane Gould’s superstar performance in Munich
14 days to go: The Kookaburras finally fly to the top of the world
13 days to go: Matthew Mitcham’s historic dive
12 days to go: Even Olympians are prone to the odd fail
11 days to go: Abebe Bikila wins the Olympic marathon running in bare feet
10 days to go: Track cycling’s greatest rivalry
9 days to go: Kieran Perkins’ gold medal from lane eight
8 days to go: Sally Pearson’s awesome run in London
7 days to go: Mark Spitz’ perfect seven gold medals in ’72
6 days to go: Usain Bolt torches the field in Beijing
5 days to go: Michael Klim and Ian Thorpe help smash America’s 4x100m world record like a guitar
4 days to go: Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ defiant black power salute
3 days to go: Michael Phelps – the best to ever grace the Olympics
2 days to go: Cathy Freeman delivers with the weight of a country on her back
1 day to go: Ian Thorpe – Australia’s finest Olympian