“One of my favorite runners of all time was Abebe Bikila,” says Robin Williams. “He was an Ethiopian long-distance runner, and we won the Rome Olympics running barefoot.”
“then he was sponsored by adidas. [when] he ran the next olympics,” notes williams, “he was wearing the fucking shoes.”
one of my favorite things about this joke is that technically it’s not a joke at all. that is, williams does not have to add anything to it. he simply tells his audience a story about bikila, but he emphasizes certain points to draw attention to his inherent humor.
Another thing I like is how informative it is. although I am not a barefoot runner, I know quite a few. I even interviewed one for stride nations. but other than my reports, I’m not that familiar with this aspect of the sport’s history. Situational irony being the beast that it is, I love Williams’ running joke (one of many from his career) that gives me a window into the past and a chance to learn more about the storied Olympic roots of barefoot running.
christopher mcdougall’s born to run touches on barefoot running when the author visits the tarahumaras in the copper canyons of mexico. Considering that running is much older than footwear, McDougall ponders the need for running shoes. This helped launch a modern barefoot running craze in the United States that recently had disastrous results.
but this is recent history. Humans have long run barefoot, and McDougall’s recognition of this is late compared to the long evolution of the human foot, leg, and stride.
Aside from the Tarahumara, many researchers believe that other Native American tribes, African tribes, and the ancient Greeks ran barefoot. many of the modern descendants of these groups still do. This is where Abebe Bikila, Robin Williams’ favorite runner, comes into play.
Born on August 7, 1932 in the town of Jato, Bikila was destined for Olympic gold. Heck, he was born on the day of the Los Angeles Olympic Marathon at the 1932 Summer Games. After working as a herdsman, then for the Ethiopian Imperial Guard, Bikila was drafted into the country’s Olympic track and field team.
Walking, running and resistance training were daily activities for bikila. as colin gibson pointed out in his report for world sports magazine:
“[as] a young barefoot herder tending his family’s herds, bikila was accustomed to walking and running several miles every day in search of pasture on the lava-covered crags that surrounded his home. by age 13 he went to school and they played ganna, Ethiopia’s long-distance version of hockey, with goalposts in the opposing teams’ villages, maybe a couple of miles away.”
Bikila’s inclusion in the 1960 Olympic team was late, so much so that the plane was on the tarmac when coach Onni Niskanen called him.
adidas sponsored the games in rome, providing shoes for all participants in the running events. but due to bikila’s late addition to the marathon, adidas did not have shoes in his size. so bikila ran the race as he had trained: barefoot.
four years later, he did it again at the tokyo games.
This feat shocks me and most other runners because we are Westerners used to easy access and wear of shoes. when I started running in high school, I trained in shoes. running barefoot was never an option. At no time did my coach or fellow racers propose it, much less conceive it. we just lace up our shoes and head out.
what bikila achieved in the olympic marathons in rome and tokyo is surprising for two reasons. one, because it’s the olympic marathon, and winning an event like that is amazing in itself. but it is more than that because he did it with bare feet, unprotected and exposed.