Abebe Bekila (1932-1973)

« I wanted the world to know that my country has always won with heroism and determination. »

Bare feet trigger some kind of reaction particularly for a child who for the first time discovers the bearer is a ragged adult carrying a big load. « Why is he walking bare feet? » asked the child with a trembling voice. « Because he doesn’t have shoes,” answered the mother pragmatically.

The mother looked into the frightened boy’s eyes understandingly. « Did you know some athletes run barefoot? » she asked him. She told him the story of Abebe Bekila who won a gold medal for setting a new marathon world record at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and beat his own record at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964. “He ran bare feet, you know, with no shoes on,” she told the child gently.

I smiled remembering how my mother had told me the tale as a child. At the time her message was to never fuss about going bare feet. “ Life is a long journey and sometimes our shoes fall off,” she said. “Abebe Bekila was a hero because he didn’t bother to put them on in the first place. He did what he had to do, his mind was on his goal not his personal comfort,” she said admiringly.

Abebe Bekila is a household name. Mother’s tell their children they’ll become fast runners like Abebe Bekila if they finish drinking their milk. A little chant, “Abebe Bekila comes running,” would follow to encourage the child. “Abebe Bekila roto meta, Abebe Bekila, roto meta,” and the chant would inspire the child to speed up and accomplish the set task.

I had the privilege of meeting the athlete’s daughter in the early nineties. We were classmates at the College of Commerce in Addis Ababa. She reminded me that later in life Abebe Bikila lost mobility of his legs after being caught in a tragic car accident.

Abebe Bekila was never able to walk again but he picked up archery and table tennis. He competed in these games at the 1970 Stoke Mandeville Games in London. He died three years later of complications related to his accident.

“Men of success meet with tragedy. It was the will of God I won the Olympics and it is the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and I live happily.”

Abebe Bekila


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