1956 was Year Zero for African running on the world stage, a 60th anniversary that few people appear to have noticed in the build-up to the Rio Olympics. For sure, South African teams had competed in global sporting events prior to that date, but the teams were entirely white. Given the dominance of East Africa in distance running nowadays, it is amazing to think that there was once a time when there were no African champions.
Ethiopia, under its dictatorial emperor Haile Selassie, repeatedly applied to join the Olympics in the 1940s and 1950s, and was just as repeatedly dismissed with laughter, until the International Olympic Committee finally relented and allowed Ethiopia to compete in Melbourne in 1956, where its athletes failed to make much of an impression. The prevailing view was that Africans lacked the discipline and temperament to be athletes, and would therefore humiliate themselves in global competition. Barefoot Runner tells the story of when everyone stopped laughing and paid attention: the day when a member of the emperor’s bodyguard seemed to come from nowhere to win the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome, barefoot.
It was Hollywood stuff. Abebe Bikila had only joined the team as a last-minute substitute when a first-team member injured himself playing football. The marathon itself was scheduled late in the day, so that it finished at night, the final miles lit atmospherically with burning torches as Bikila and Rhadi of Morocco duelled it out for gold. In a sweet moment of national vengeance, Bikila won his victory by passing under the arch of Constantine, the very spot from where Mussolini had set out 25 years previously to conquer Ethiopia, known then as Abyssinia. He even set a new world record of 2:15:16 to boot. Four years later, and just a few weeks after having his appendix removed, Bikila won gold again in Tokyo, becoming the first person to score double marathon gold medals.
Bikila’s final years ended in tragedy. Involved in a car crash, he became paralysed from the waist down, and spent months recovering at Stoke Mandeville hospital in the UK. He toured Ethiopia for a while, giving inspirational talks to schoolchildren, but eventually died in 1973 from complications relating to his injuries. He was just 40 years old.
The words “story” and “Hollywood” that I used earlier are important here. Barefoot Runner is a fictionalised imagining of Bikila’s life. Although Rambali has clearly done a lot of research, he has filled in the gaps with speculation and incidents that may not have happened. There is a horrifying scene during Bikila’s first journey to Addis Ababa where a thief in a marketplace is identified by a boy in a trance and then hacked apart by a mob. Bikila himself is nearly fingered as the culprit before the trance-boy changes his mind. It’s a shocking and vividly described moment, and perhaps such things are known to have happened in Ethiopia at the time, but was Bikila actually there, and was he really nearly the victim of mob justice? Similarly, there is a roll-call of 20th century figures that have cameo roles in the narrative: Nelson Mandela prior to his arrest; Lee Evans, who was one of several US medallists who gave the Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics; and Wilma Rudolph, the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and worthy of a biopic in her own right, to name a few. Rambali imagines how these conversations might have unfolded. There’s no proof of course.
None of which actually gets in the way of enjoyment of the book. It’s beautifully written, and Rambali gets into the minds and motivations of his three main characters: the humble Bikila; his guilt-ridden Finnish coach Onni Niskanen; and the powerful and paranoid Selassie. Indeed much of the books is actually a fascinating portrait of an absolute monarch facing the pressures of modernity. And what an eccentric king he was. Selassie split his day into Hours in which certain types of business took place: the Hour of Informants; the Hour of Purse; the Hour of Judgements etc. The most pivotal moment in the story comes when two of the emperor’s’ western-educated “next generation” betray him and launch a coup, supported by the imperial bodyguard. It’s here where I feel Rambali crosses a line into dangerous embellishment, depicting Bikila as an (unwilling) witness to the massacre of aristocrats by his fellow bodyguards. Once the coup is defeated, the perpetrators are hanged and Bikila is only saved by a royal pardon because of his sporting success. It is a fantastically dramatic account…but there’s not a shred of evidence for it either way.
Ultimately the reader has to make up their own mind about where fact and fiction part ways. I have read some alternative accounts that suggest Bikila was not the mild-mannered man depicted in the book, but rather like later tragic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru, he succumbed to drink and womanising as he grew famous and wealthy, and was possibly drunk at the wheel at the time of his crash. We will probably never have the full story.
Don’t let any of this stop you from reading the book. It’s a cracking story, blisteringly told, and unlike any other work of ‘sporting fiction’ you’ll ever read.