By Ken Zurski
At the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Gordon McKenzie was one of three U.S runners entered in the prestigious marathon, a race the Americans were given only an outside chance to win.
Before the start of the race, however, McKenzie noticed a “skinny little African guy” in the field. “There’s one guy we don’t have to worry about,” he said to another entrant. The guy he was referring too was Abele Bikila from Ethiopia.
McKenzie knew that in the past African runners didn’t fare so well in long distance races. But Africa, the continent, was changing. New nations were forming and more athletes were competing like Bikila, who was a soccer player and soldier before becoming a runner. Bikila was also used to training in the extreme heat, something many of the other runners were not.
On the day of the race, September 10, temperatures were expected to be near 90 degrees. So a change was made to start the race at twilight and end in “torch-lit” darkness by the Arch of Constantine and not in the Olympic stadium, a first for the games.
By the time it was over, Bikila had stunned the crowd and won the race convincingly – shattering an Olympic record in the process. A fitting end to the Games which had already introduced a track star named Wilma Rudolph and an unknown young boxer at the time named Cassius Clay.
Bikila became the first runner from Africa to win an Olympic marathon and in hindsight set the stage for the dominance of African marathoner’s to come.
But it’s how he won that most impressed.
Bikila had to throw out the badly frayed sneakers he arrived with and dismissed a last minute replacement pair because it didn’t fit properly.
He had nothing left to wear.
So like he had done many times in training, Bikila started and completed the race in his bare feet.