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Bikila: My Sporting Hero

Bikila: My Sporting Hero

Story by: Doug Anderson


It's said there's no greater thirst in the world today than the thirst for heroes. People don't believe in God (or gods) as much as they used to. Today's politicians, military leaders or war heroes don't seem to inspire with the galvanic clout of yesteryear. The choice, for those prone to hero worship, lies more in sporting role models or the dubious creations conjured by a legion of spin-doctors in Hollywood.

The whole Joseph Campbell mythology trip persists largely on the strength of comic strip invenstion. Sow's ears make wondrous silken purses in every conceivable field of human endeavour. Batman, the neo-televisual Hercules and even gore-crazed swine portrayed by titans such as Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris act out (and I use the word "act" loosely) tremendous deeds of daring - never mind that we're asked to believe their characters are renegade botanists, archaeologists or de-frocked rectors in deep cover.

In Victory (1981), Stallone went in to bat - as it were - with real life soccer legend Pele in a woeful POW drama that equated soccer with freedom of expression and the power of pyrrhic victory over totalitarian darkness. It's dead easy to be cynical of assembly-line deities.

Nonetheless, I've had my share of heroes and experienced deep admiration for a handful of sportsmen and women. Ray Price, battered, tough as ironbark and relentless, remains a figure of respect. Dave Sands was an icon when we were youngsters re-constituting sensational boxing sagas of the silver screen. Ken Irvine, a legend at Norths, inspired many a dash to (and from) North Sydney Oval where barefoot mates would pool their pennies to get one in - the elected one first giving the others a leg-up to scale the eastern boundary wall.

We'd hear cheers from the oval floating across the gully to the street where we played. The same gully where various re-enactments of Tarzan's jungle exploits were played out after Saturday Matinees at the Southern Cross cinema. And at night, a glimmer of self worship as we stripped off to stand before the mirror in the birthday suit and see whether we measured up vis-a-vis "legs like pillars of oak, powerful biceps, a firm, flat stomach rippling like coiled cobras" and other physical attributes promised by Charles Atlas in his Dynamic Body Building System.

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But how many of today's sporting heroes, apart from some disabled athletes, actually perform heroic deeds? Multi-millionaire colossuses are talented but heroic largely in name only so far as I can judge. Yet one athlete, whose deeds were genuinely inspiring and whose heroism was touched by tragedy, endures from my teenage years.

Abebe Bikila.

Say again? Bikila was an Ethiopian soldier serving in the army of the late and not terribly great Emporer Haile Selassie ... highly delighted, how are you? A wiry little guy, with fine features, 5ft 9 inches and just under 11 stone (175cm, 70kg) - Abebe entered the marathon at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome as a 33-year-old unknown.

His running style seemed efforless: head floating above a body that moved with an irresistible rhythm, not too long a stride, eating distance in a way that betrayed no hint of exertion. It was a flowing momentum - neither coldly efficient nor aggressive nor yet suggesting ruthless tactical calculation - such as we have seen since in a slew of long-distance champions. Bikila seemed to be a guy running his own race, his eyes fixed on the finish from the off. Anyone hoping to pass him would have to have longer legs, bigger eyes and a heart like a wheel.

His coach, Swede Onni Niskanen, told him before the start in 1960, to write three numbers on his hand: 26, 13 and 69. The first was the singlet number of the favourite, Moroccan champion Abdesiem Rhadie. The others were just random numbers.

Abebe took the lead after 10km, running unchallenged into the late evening. At the halfway mark, no. 26 appeared at his shoulder, staying there until, with the gates in sight, the Ethiopian kicked away, powering barefoot to the most convincing of victories in 2hrs 15min 32.2s. This was eight minutes faster than Emile Zatopek's best time.

Upon his return home, he was feted extensively. Selassie gave him a promotion and a slender raise. The next Games were in Tokyo and Bikila again represented his country in the searing heat, burning off the field for an unprecedented second win. His time of 2:12:11.2 put him about 1km ahead of second place getter Basil Heatley, of Britain. It was later revealed that Abebe had had his appendix removed only a couple of weeks earlier and he delighted the stadium crowd by calmly warming down with a calisthenics routine.

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Having done the impossible, in winning successive marathons, he was set for the inconceivable when the Mexico Games rolled around in 1968. Abebe was 41 but still very much a contender. The inconceivable proved to be just that when, at the 17km mark and in the lead, he was forced to withdraw with a fractured left tibia.

He should never have been walking, let alone undertaking a 42.2km run against the world's best. His understudy, Mamo Wolde, went on to win in 2:20:26.4, pretty amazing given the altitude, but well outside the times Abebe had run.

Beyond the inconceivable, the unthinkable was lying in wait for the champion. Driving home from training on a wet night in March, 1969, his car, a gift from the Emperor, crashed, trapping him in the wreckage. When he was found and extricated, 10 hours later, the worst was revealed. His neck had been broken and his spine damaged. He would never walk, let alone run, ever again.

Newsreels of him at the time showed a man utterly heart-broken. But the following year, he competed in archery and table tennis at the 19th Stoke Mandeville Games for Wheelchair Sportsmen - a forerunner to the Paralympics - brave enough to smile and extol the spirit of competition.

In 1973, stricken with a brain tumour, he died, aged 46. I recall being winded at the news, groaning aloud at reading the obits - a sorrow since echoed with the deaths of others I have admired: Arthur Lowe, Ralph Richardson, Lloyd Rees, Weary Dunlop, John Hargreaves. People I had never met yet whose skill, humanity, art and tenacity inspired abiding respect.

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Bikila was buried in a cemetary reserved for national heroes. That's the sort of wet, useless thing the ever-busy masseurs of mass sentiment - the choreographers of public grief - thrive on as they orchestrate expiation as a balm to the dead. They build monuments. But the real spirit doesn't linger in monuments, it lives in the hearts of those it touches... vital, sustaining and personal.

The collective admiration of the also-rans is a powerful force; affirmation that winning with grace and humility is the exception in an era where success is consistent with clenched fists, the wriggling arse to the mosh pit at soccer grounds, the splenetic self-abuse of millionaire tennis court louts...

Sneering, sledging show ponies who would probably prefer the ultimate triumphant pose - lording superiority and muzzle velocity like a Brylcreemed tiger hunter astride the corpse of the vanquished competitor.

Bikila lives, all the stronger for his dignity. Still the same... still in the game.


Cool Running Australia 09.09.97. Reproduced with permission from the author, Doug Anderson. This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 09.08.97.

Photos: 1 and 4: Leyendas Olímpicas, 2: Hulton Deutsch/Allsport (From Encarta web site), 3: NOCSA web site.


This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010


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