Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Runners for the Ages

Runners for the Ages
Jim Israel, PPTC member

Abebe Bikila, Marathon, Rome, 1960…
For this writer, the concept of a ‘marathon’ took hold during the Olympic Games in Rome, 1960. Before that event, a marathon competition seemed to this observer a sport for crazies – who on Earth could possibly run 26 miles, or, for that matter, who the hell would want to? No one sane, that’s for sure. Yeah, I knew the story of a Greek warrior running that distance to forewarn his Athenian countrymen of an impending attack by marauders, dropping dead after reaching his destination. I didn’t believe that tale for a minute; in fact, I’ve always wondered why didn’t Pheidippides saunter over  to a rental counter at one of Ben Hur’s franchise-stores, Rent-a-Chariot, yoke the vehicle to a couple of speedy steeds, and hightail it back home much more quickly, with no threat to life and limb? The story doesn’t add up.
But enough of my musings.
In 1960, an Ethiopian unheralded and unknown, with no history whatsoever on the track-and-field international circuit, not only ran away from all his competition, winning easily, he completed the entire course in bare feet, in a race that occurred at night to avoid the intense summer heat of Rome.
We’ll start at the beginning:  born a shepherd’s son in the hills outside of Addis Ababa, Abebe Bikila did not take up marathon training until the age of 24 [four years prior to the Rome Games]. No one in the track-and-field community had any inkling as to Mr. Bikila’s prowess prior to the marathon start. One European coach months earlier had read in a running magazine of a marathoner who ran a 2:24 race in Eithiopia, but he dismissed the report: no one can run that fast in the desert, he reasoned.
Mr. Bikila, in fact, was a last-minute replacement when the originally selected Ethiopian marathoner broke his ankle in a soccer match. He arrived in Rome without a suitable pair of running shoes. Adidas, the shoe sponsor for the Games, had only a few pairs left, none of which fit Mr. Bikila comfortably. No big deal: Abebe Bikila decided, on the spot, to run barefoot.
Gordon MacKenzie, an American in the race, recalled looking down the starting line at Mr. Bikila [The race began and ended at The Arch of Constantine, just outside the Coliseum.], and saying to himself, “He’s barefoot? That’s one guy I don’t have to worry about.”
The race, begun at dusk as nightfall beckoned, was compelling, indeed. Not so much for the nature of the competition: Mr. Bikila led virtually from the start, never relinquishing his lead, and finished in 2:15:16, a new Olympic record at the time. Dramatic, though, was the scene: a half-moon aglow, soldiers holding torches 10 yards apart from each other, block after block, strobe lights used in filming the race highlighted Mr. Bikila’s relentless pounding along the route and his indomitable will to win, running over the centuries-old streets of ancient Rome in darkness. Mr. MacKenzie, himself despairing of the potholes and cobblestones, remembered hearing the ‘pat-pat-pat-pat’ staccato sound of someone’s bare feet hitting the streets.
There’s an iconic image of Mr. Bikila approaching the finish line, a thousand photo flash bulbs going off, the Arch of Constantine lit up, and the huge Coliseum as a backdrop. It’s breathtaking.
Abebe Bikila’s heroics did not cease with Rome. Four years later, 40 days after suffering an attack of acute appendicitis and having his appendix removed, he won the Olympics marathon again, this time in Tokyo. And, he set a world record, 2:12:11. For that race, alas, he weakened, and ran in running shoes [Pumas, in fact].
Lest we forget, too, Abebe Bikila was the first African to win a gold medal in an Olympian track event. Every one of the African runners who has competed and won in subsequent years – including all those Kenyans – must have been inspired by the diminutive, barefoot marathoner from Ethiopia who, emerging from essentially a desolate butt end of the earth, defeated all those high-and-mighty European colonialists in the capital of what once was the most powerful empire in history.
Comments? They’re always welcome, pro or con….


Michael Rieman said...

Hello James-

I serve as a member of the PPTC newsletter committee. Thank you for your article and video; I am certain they will interest many of our members.

I do have a question about the appropriateness and language of the final statement, though. Is the language "butt end of the earth" really necessary? Is the article strengthened by a comment on colonialism in the final sentence, or does that statement inject an unnecessary tone into the piece? A reader could draw the same conclusions if he or she wished to do so without thinking that this had been the point of your article.

Please feel free to respond to my comments.

Thank you,

Michael Rieman


Jim Israel said...

Mr. Rieman:

Your points are well taken, but I'd like to take issue with one in particular.

'Colonialists' may be too strong a word; I would agree to the deletion of that word, and just end the sentence with 'Europeans.'

But, I would appreciate if my point about Mr. Bikila's being the first African to win a running race at the Olympics is left in. That's a very big deal, as he was the FIRST of many, many others to succeed. And, I don't really rely on my readers to make similar conclusions as I. I tell them my opinions: that's what my writing's all about.

And, it's impossible that Mr. Bikila and his countrymen, upon reflection, did not know the implications of defeating their former conquerors. That's a great 'sidebar' to the actual Olympic race, and should be retained in some form in the article.

My point in using 'butt end' is that, indeed, Ethiopia is a desolate, impoverished wasteland. That's just the reality of that country. And, that reality adds to the enormity of Mr. Bikila's feat. If you'd like to take out 'butt end', OK. Maybe substitute with the phrase 'desolute, despairing country.'

Check out my website. You'll see my writing is all about having strong opinions. I don't believe in coddling my readers. They're all 'big boys and girls.'

Jim Israel