Post World War II, the Ethiopian government decided to bring in foreign coaches to instruct athletes in the hopes of sending a delegation. Onni Miskanen, a Swede put in charge of developing a running program, identified Bikila and went to work turning him into a world-class runner. Two years later Bikila entered the National Armed Forces Championship — Ethiopia’s contest to determine representatives at the next Summer Olympics in 1960. Facing national champion Wami Biratu and a host of more experienced athletes, Bikila managed to qualify for the Games by sweeping across the finish line before anyone else. As the Games approached, Bikila’s fortunes shifted. Biratu and Wakgira, running better than Bikila during training, moved into the preferred places for the trip to Rome. Now an alternate, Bikila looked likely to stay home while his countrymen took on the historic course. As fate would have it, Biratu broke his ankle and opened a spot for Bikila at the last minute — arriving just in time to take a seat on the plane to the Italian capital.
During training runs on the Olympic course and Roman side streets, he noticed a problem: his shoes were too worn to survive the 26.2-mile race. Adidas supplied him with another pair — too narrow and slick for the cobblestone streets he would traverse. Two hours before the race, Bikila decided to forgo footwear altogether. A little more than two hours later, after sprinting away from his competition for the last 500m, Bikila had set a new world record of 2:15:16.2 and earned the first gold medal for a sub-Saharan nation. Asked why he had chosen to continue without shoes, he answered, “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.” Marking the rise and future dominance of East African middle- and long-distance runners, in the presence of the all-white South African team that the International Olympic Committee chose not to challenge, and against the vastly better funded and better equipped Soviet, US and European athletes, Bikila ran his name and that of his country into history.
When the Summer Olympics came around again in 1964, Bikila won with a new world record for the second time — wearing shoes this time — just 40 days after having an emergency appendectomy.