Ethiopia is known as the cradle of humanity, but also as one of the best stables for long distance runners in the world. Ethiopia has produced a lot of super stars of the long distance running, but one who stands out above all is Haile Gebrselassie, the king of the distance. As a child, I remember being glued to the TV waiting to watch Haile’s performances. It was like watching a maestro at work. I loved seeing him run the whole 9600 m, then sprint through the last 200-400 m like he had just started the race. Gebrselassie has inspired me, and thousands of youths to run. We have all dreamed of running the distance the way he ran.
So it is with sadness that I learnt of Gebrselassie’s retirement from competitive running. I am delighted to have had a chance to see him in his prime years, and watch him transition from 10000 m to marathon running, and there still express perfection. Truly, everything he did in his running was done with perfection, striving to be the very best every stride he took, and that is the message to everyone out there: strive for perfection, strive to do the very best you can in everything you do, every single day. To that effect, Gebrselassie said: “You need three things to win: discipline, hard work, and, before everything commitment. No one will make it without those three, sport teaches you that;” and “When you run the marathon, you run against the distance, not against the other runners, and not against time.” I am leaving you with the article I wrote three years ago about him, and with this great video on some of his accomplishments.
With the start of the 2012 London Olympics, I thought about giving you a hint as to who to look out for, and who are those brilliant athletes representing the continent at the Olympics. Here is a list of some of the outstanding ones… There is no particular order. If I have missed a big one, please send me his/her name.
Today I would like to talk about Abebe Bikila, one of Africa’s finest athletes, who marked the entire continent by his strength, endurance, and love of his country, and continent. Abebe Bikila was an Ethiopian athlete and the very first African to win an Olympic gold medal in 1964 (remember that previous winners like Alain Mimoun from Algeria competed for France, since Algeria was still a French colony).
Coincidentally born on the day of the 1932Los Angeles Olympics, Abebe Bikila opened his eyes to the world in the small village of Jato, near the town of Mendida in Ethiopia. As a young adult, one could already sense his determination, as he decided to join the imperial guard, and walked the distance of 130 km separating him from Addis Ababa. Thereafter he started as a private guard. Soon after, he was spotted by Onni Niskanen, a Swede, who had been hired by the government to train athletes.
He made it to the 1960Rome Olympics as a replacement to Wami Biratu who had just injured himself. At the shoe-trial, Adidas, the Olympics sponsor, had very few shoes left, and none of them were comfortable to Bikila. In the end, Abebe Bikila ran the marathon barefoot in Rome’s cobblestone streets. He won the marathon in a record time of 2:15:16.2 improving the previous record by 8 min, thus giving Africa its very first gold Olympic medal. When asked why he ran barefoot, he said: “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.” The symbolic was huge, since there on the track course was the Axum Obelisk, which Mussolini had plundered away from Ethiopia… and 24 years later, Abebe Bikila, a small Ethiopian, from the imperial guard of Emperor Haile Selassie, marched over Rome and conquered!
40 days prior to the 1964Tokyo Olympics, Abebe was operated for an appendicitis. His sense of determination was so strong that he would train at night in the hospital courtyard, during the recovery. Once in Tokyo, Abebe Bikila set a new world record, 2:12:11:2, and won the race far ahead of the pack, and still full of energy. The police estimated that 1 million people lined up the streets to cheer Abebe Bikila. He was the first person in history to win a gold medal for the marathon back-to-back. Back home, Bikila was given a hero’s return by Emperor Haile Selassie and all of Ethiopia.
At the 1968Mexico City Olympics, Abebe Bikila tried to repeat his win, but had to surrender after 17 km due to a severe injury to his knee. He told his teammate Mamo Wolde, as he was living the race: “The responsibility of winning a gold medal for Ethiopia is in your shoulder.”
It pains me to know that this great Olympian finished his life on a wheelchair. During the civil unrest of 1969, trying to avoid a crowd, he lost control of his car, and landed in a ditch. He was left paralyzed by the accident, as a quadriplegic. After several operations, his condition improved to the point where he was a paraplegic. While in wheels, Abebe’s competitive spirit and desire to see his country’s flag hoisted high and proud helped him compete and win several more races. In 1970, he participated in a 25 km cross-country sledge competition in Norway where he won the gold medal. Again, in the same tournament, he won a similar 10 km race where he was awarded a special plaque.
Abebe Bikila died in 1973 from complications from his accident, 4 years earlier. His funeral was attended by more than 75,000 people, and emperor Haile Selassie proclaimed a national day of mourning for Ethiopia’s national hero. Newspapers throughout Africa eulogized him as an inspiration to their athletes and youths, some of whom won gold medals in future Olympics. A stadium in Addis Ababa was named in his honor.
Please check out the website dedicated to Abebe Bikila, and this great article on Abebe Bikila on Ethiopians.com, and enjoy the poem written in praise of Bikila’s great heroism. The lines I liked were: Abebe Bikila, With you, Our dreams Never broken … The foot soldier Of forty years Led Ethiopians to run… And this said he in silence: We are the Ethiopians Whose lions made to sleep Need to run twice as fast!” … Running for Victory With that Abe’s Legacy.Yahoo had a really good article on him, while the The Guardian had a really good photojournal to honor Bikila’s life and legacy. Lastly, click on this Facebook page and check out the movie Abebe Bikila made in his honor. Throughout his illustrious athletic career, Bikila had competed in more than 26 major marathon races. The world championships he won in 1960 and 1962 deserve special recognition, as well as the Osaka marathon of 1961. Bikila became the first runner ever to win two Olympic marathon gold medals, and the first African ever to win double gold at the Olympics. As the olympics approach, please remember this great African athlete who inspired so many, and was so determined that even as a paraplegic he still won gold medals.
Last night I thought about writing a piece on the greatest long-distance runner of all times, the great Haile Gebrselassie. My interest for Track and field (athletism) has always been big, but my interest for 10,000 m was awaken by Haile Gebrselassie running 10,000 m and taking the gold medal at the 1995 Gothenburg games. This great athlete hails from Ethiopia and has redefined what it means to run 10,000 m. He is a long-distance track and road running athlete. Imagine someone who has just run 9600 m, and still has the power to accelerate and sprint through the next 200-400 m as if he was Michael Johnson or Usain Bolt? If you can imagine this, you have imagined Haile Gebrselassie! I have enjoyed watching him run with grace, poise, endurance, and strength. I once read that he would train by running 30 km every day, and I thought to myself, no wonder he is a 2-time Gold olympic winner (1996 Atlanta, and 2000 Sydney), 4-times world championship winner, 4-times consecutive Berlin marathon winner, 3-times consecutive Dubai marathon winner (not sure how one could run in Dubai’s heat), broke 61 records in Ethiopia, and 27 world records, and is greatly considered the world’sgreatest distance runner in history. He has broken his own record several times, and is a true inspiration to many. He starred as himself in the 1999 movie Endurance.
I dream of running a 10000 m race one day, just like Haile… Imagine a non-runner inspired to run? Yes… that’s being influenced by the greatest of all, Haile Gebrselassie… So many of us in Africa owe to this man who started running 10 km to go to school back when he was just a child; this man from a poor background, who went through all odds to reach the summit. The current gold olympic title holder is Kenenisa Bekele, a fellow Ethiopian, and a protégé of Haile. A whole generation of Ethiopian long-distance runners, and African runners, and kids like me, have been inspired by this athlete who is running the distance for greatness (He gave his first gold medal to his church to thank God for his talent). All praise to the greatest of all: Haile Gebrselassie. I had hoped to see him at the London 2012 olympic games this summer, but just learnt that he would not be there. Although I feel sad, I am just grateful that we will be watching Kenenisa Bekele, and many others who have all been inspired by the greatest of all, Haile Gebrselassie.