During my recent visit to Rome, part of the itinerary was to go to a football match between Roma and Milan at the Stadio Olimpico, thereby visiting the venue of the 1960 Olympics.
However, our plans were scuppered when the match was moved to the day before we arrived in Rome – probably because the original Sunday afternoon date clashed with the canonisation of two former popes at the Vatican, requiring extra security to contain the hooligan element among Catholic pilgrims.
Still, while in Rome I got to see the Via di San Gregorio, a street which is far more significant in Olympic and athletics history than the host stadium. For this street, leading up to the Arch of Constantine near the Colosseum, was the finishing straight for the men’s Olympic marathon of 1960, which saw a sensational performance and iconic victory by Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia.
By all accounts, Bikila’s win was a surprise – he was apparently a last-minute selection for the Ethiopian team and was unknown to the wider athletics community. But he won with ease in a new world best time of 2:15:16, with only Rhadi Ben Abdesselam of Morocco capable of staying with him until the final kilometre.
(The main pack of leaders in the first half of the race included Ireland’s Bertie Messitt, who worked on the buses in Dublin and so was known as the Lightning Conductor.)
Another champion from those Games, Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), is celebrated as a pioneer of black achievement. But consider Bikila’s victory. His was the first Olympic gold for a black African. What’s more, he had won in the capital of Italy, the former colonial conqueror of Ethiopia.
However, today the most iconic aspect of Bikila’s 1960 Olympic win might be the fact that he ran with no shoes. He has become the poster boy of the barefoot running movement – although it’s worth noting that he had intended to wear shoes but found his sponsored pair to be too uncomfortable. Bikila wore running shoes when he retained his Olympic marathon title in Tokyo four years later.
The potent imagery of that shoeless victory was exemplified in the 2010 Rome Marathon, 50 years after Bikila’s run, when the race organiser offered a €5,000 bonus if the men’s winner crossed the line barefoot. Fittingly, the race was won by an Ethiopian, Siraj Jena, who duly took off his shoes – and socks – with 300 metres to go and finished in Bikila style. (What would be more painful: running a marathon barefoot or stopping before the finish of a marathon to take off your shoes and socks?)
A more conventional commemoration of Bikila’s 1960 Olympic title is the small plaque on the Via di San Gregorio finishing straight.
Bikila’s second Olympic marathon gold in 1964 is captured memorably in Kon Ichikawa’s brilliant documentary Tokyo Olympiad, but here’s a fantastic short film of the Ethiopian’s Roman victory – check out the stirring score, the overdubbed sound effect of bare feet slapping on the road, the old-school narration (“The Emperor will surely promote him for this!”) and a magical scene where the lights are switched on over the monuments of ancient Rome: