The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Barefoot Runner - The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila

Paul Rambali

Reviewer - John Mellors

Abebe Bikila was undoubtedly the father of modern athletics in Ethiopia. Born in 1932 in Jato (although the book calls the village Jirou), near Debre Birhan, he joined the Imperial Body Guard and went on to become a runner. In 1960 he became the first ‘black African’ to win a gold medal at the Olympics, running barefoot in the marathon in Rome. He won a second Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 1964, just six weeks after undergoing an appendectomy. He finished in a world best time, minutes ahead of the silver medalist Benjamin Heatley of Great Britain, becoming the first man to win two Olympic marathons in a row. Sadly he was left paralysed from the waist down following a car accident in 1969 and would never walk again. He still continued to compete in archery and table tennis competitions at games for wheelchair users. In 1973 Abebe died in hospital following a brain haemorrhage. Abebe Bikila won many marathons during his career and certainly his exploits brought Ethiopia to the attention of people throughout the world.

Despite Paul Rambali’s claims that Abebe’s “story has never before been told” several books about Abebe Bikila have already been published. In 1996 Abebe’s daughter, Tsegie Abebe, wrote a book titled Triumph and Tragedy: A History of Abebe Bikila and His Marathon Career which was published in Addis Ababa. More recently Giorgio Lo Giudice and Valerio Piccioni published a book in Italy in 2003 titled Un sogno a Roma - Storia di Abebe Bikila. There are no references given in Rambali’s book and most of the events that are supposed to occur are not dated. Unusually for a sports biography, there is no list of competition statistics and there are no photographs, except for the one on the front cover.

The reader might expect the book to be a carefully researched biography, especially as it was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2006. Unfortunately it is clear that it isn’t, and, worse, the author seems keen not to let the facts get in the way of a ‘good story’. For instance the book starts with Abebe in hospital in Britain watching a television programme showing Professor Carleton Coon holding the skull of Lucy in the Afar triangle. In fact Lucy was not discovered until 1974, the year after the death of Abebe, and Carleton Coon had nothing to do with the discovery.

The book then has a young Abebe walking from his home village to Addis to join the Imperial Guard and, after losing “count of the days since he had departed from his village,” passing through Axum – miles in completely the wrong direction! Why? Perhaps just so the author could describe the “tall stone obelisk covered in strange inscriptions” in an “old language”? This is supposed to be Axum, not Luxor! Or perhaps so he could describe the barbaric chasing and hacking off of the arm of a man who had been picked out of the crowd as being a thief by a youth in a trance? Just another everyday occurrence in the Axum market?

Much of the story appears to be based on the author’s preconceptions of what life in Ethiopia must have been like. I found so many obvious factual mistakes in the volume that it was difficult to know exactly what was true. Rambali suggests that Abebe had actually been with Mengistu Neway in the palace during the 1960 coup attempt and had only been saved from execution by the intervention of his coach, Onni Niskanen. Is this really true? Certainly his story that Abebe’s car crash was a result of him having to swerve to avoid rioting students in Addis Ababa is absolute rubbish!

In interviews the author has described the book as being a “fictional biography” – it’s a pity this isn’t made clear anywhere in the book itself and unfortunately the book seems to me to be rather more fiction than biography. Many reviewers have already pointed out errors. Sarah Heatley, the daughter of the silver medallist in the Tokyo Olympics marathon, wrote a letter to Athletics Weekly disputing some of the statements in the book. She concluded “If I want fiction, I’ll buy Jilly Cooper”.

Sadly some of the more colourful statements in the book are now being accepted as facts. A very disappointing book.

Barefoot Runner by Paul Rambali, published by Serpent's Tail, Sept 2006.
Softback: 320 pages
ISBN: 1852429046

First Published in News File Spring 2007

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