The legend of the arduous road race called The Marathon has its origins in Ancient Greece. In 490 BCE, the Athenians, heavily outnumbered, defeated the Persians at the epic battle at Marathon, southeast of modern-day Athens. Pheidippides was a Greek herald, and his officers told him to run as fast as he could from Marathon to Athens to announce the news of the great victory. Depending on the various classical sources of the story, the herald that bore the news then collapsed and died after he had delivered his message of triumph.

Regardless, the legend was born, and the distance that Pheidippides allegedly ran, which was forty-one kilometers, or twenty-six miles, became the accepted length of a grueling, long-distance race which has become a staple both by itself and at sporting events, such as the Olympic Games. And also one of the most memorable races, as was the marathon of Rome 1960.

Games of the XVII Olympiad: Rome 1960

One of the most famous marathon triumphs of all time was that of Abebe Bikila, a former captain in the Ethiopian army. In July 1960, he ran a marathon in Ethiopia in which he recorded a time of 2 hours, 21 minutes, 23 seconds, which was faster than the existing Olympic world record, which was then held by the Czech running champion, Emil Zatopek. Bikila, one of a new generation of runners from East Africa, would go on to prove that the training they completed at high altitudes and their epic endurance and determination would stand runners from East African countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, and Somalia in good stead.

Bikila, who was then twenty-eight, had bought new running shoes for the Rome marathon, but he found that they gave him blisters, and so he decided to run barefoot instead, along Rome’s hard cobbled streets. There were a variety of competitors in the race too, including the New Zealander Barry Magee, and the Russian Sergei Popov, who was the holder of the current world record at that point.

An Ethiopian runner in the Eternal City

The race took place in the late afternoon in Rome, as it was so hot, and the runners passed such notable monuments as the Capitoline Hill staircase, and the Arch of Constantine. The race also went past the famous Obelisk of Axum, a monolithic ‘stele’ that had been removed from its home in Ethiopia by Italian soldiers in 1935. It would be returned by Italy in 2005.

There were sixty-five participants from thirty-five different nations running that September 1960 Olympic marathon and the favorites were the Russians. Halfway through the race, Bikila came to the fore and began to be noticed by the journalists covering the event.

As he raced towards the finish, Bikila’s path was lit along the Appian Way by Italian soldiers holding torches, and he crossed the finishing line, beating Popov’s world record by eight-tenths of a second. His time was itself a new record, at 2 hours, 15 minutes, 16.2 seconds. 

Bikila defended his marathon win four years later at the Tokyo Olympics, running in world record time. He became a national hero in Ethiopia and firmly put on the world running map the relationship between high-altitude training – such as in Ethiopia – and successful performance in marathons.

The Ethiopian government presented him with a Volkswagen Beetle, but this lead to tragedy when a road accident in 1969 left him paralyzed. He continued to compete in disabled sporting events when he could, after a long period of rehabilitation in Great Britain. He died in Addis Ababa aged forty-one, in 1973. His state funeral was attended by 65,000 mourners, including the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.