Abebe Bikila was the only marathoner in history to win an Olympic gold medal running barefoot, but that fact hides the more significant question: Someone actually won an Olympic gold medal in the marathon running BAREFOOT?
Yep, it really happened, and it’s an interesting bit of history to recall, considering the marathon at this year’s Tokyo Olympics is scheduled for Sunday in Japan (Saturday in the U.S.).
Competing for Ethiopia, Bikila wasn’t even supposed to compete in the Rome Olympics in 1960, but he filled in for countryman Wami Biratu, who had to withdraw due to an injury suffered playing soccer, according to the website Inverse.
So, Bikila went to Rome to compete, but only had a worn pair of tennis shoes that had been used for training.
The obvious solution was to get a new pair of shoes, but that turned into an issue when the footwear left him with blisters.
The day of the race, Bikila decided to ditch any pair of shoes altogether and run the whole marathon barefoot.
Imagine the amazement of those in the crowd, who watched Bikila run on his bare feet through cobblestone streets and down other hard surfaces throughout the race.
The jaws had to continue to drop when Bikila not only surged ahead in the later stages of the race, but ended up finishing first in what was then a world record of 2 hours, 15 minutes and 16.2 seconds.
He finished 25 seconds ahead of the silver-medal winner.
“I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism,” Bikila said after the race, according to olympic.org.
In the years since, people fascinated by Bikila’s feat with his feet have debated whether running without shoes gave him an advantage.
Daniel Lieberman, a biologist at Harvard University, told Inverse that people who run without shoes have a fundamentally different stride.
“In general, barefoot runners land on the ball of the foot before letting down the heel – this is called a forefoot or midfoot strike, and they also tend to take shorter strides, have less of an overstride, and have a higher step rate [about 180 steps/minute],” he said. “But there is a lot of variation that depends on skill, speed, surface and other factors.”
Lieberman added that running barefoot causes less stress on the knees, but it’s harder on the calf muscles and Achilles tendon.
Regardless, Bikila proved four years later that running barefoot didn’t give him any special edge, since he also won the gold medal in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, this time running with shoes on.
A national hero in Ethiopia, Bikila has a stadium in Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, named after him and also has a bridge in Ladispoli, Italy named after him.
Bikila died in 1973 at the age of 41 of cerebral hemorrhage, caused by a car crash in 1969 that left him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to walk again.