The band couldn’t find the Ethiopian national anthem when a former bodyguard for Haile Selassie became the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in the signature event of the Olympics
Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila. By Paul Rambali. Serpent’s Tail, 315 pp., $20, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
This is a very strange book about the first African to win a gold medal at the Olympics and the man some regard as the greatest marathoner of all time. Born in rural Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila served as a bodyguard for Emperor Haile Selassie before running barefoot to his first gold medal at the Rome games in 1960. Four years later, wearing shoes and socks in Tokyo, Bikila became the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in the marathon:
“Bikila was so euphoric that it mattered not if the band could not find the score for the Ethiopian national anthem … and played the Japanese anthem instead,” David Miller writes in Athens to Athens.
Journalist Paul Rambali tells Bikila’s story in a book that its publisher bills as a biography but that reads more like a novelization. From the first sentence onward, Rambali uses the literary device of limited omniscient narration: He goes inside Bikila’s head and, in alternating chapters, that of his coach, Onni Niskanen, and describes thoughts he appears to have had no way of knowing.
This device might have worked beautifully in a brief children’s biography, an art form that allows more leeway for the technique. As it is, too much of Barefoot Runner defies belief for a work labeled “nonfiction.”
Bikila died of a brain hemorrhage in his early 40s, which may help to explain why no definitive biography of him has appeared, nearly a half century after he struck gold in Rome. But lesser athletes have had better books written about them. The world will owe a debt to anyone who gives this great Olympian the great biography he deserves.
Best line: Rambali explains why Bikila ran barefoot in Rome, though he provides no source for it. He says that when Bikila, among other runners, went to the Adidas stand in the Olympic village to get shoes, there were no shoes that fit him: “His big toes were too large and his outside toes too small. ‘They’re almost ingrown,’ said the Adidas man. He was curious about Abebe’s feet and said he had never seen anything like them: the soles and heels were as hard as corns! He told the major [Onni Niskanen] they had given away 1,500 pairs of shoes and they had hardly any left … They couldn’t find a pair of shoes anywhere that Abebe was comfortable with and finally the major had decided that, since there wouldn’t be time to properly break in a new pair, Abebe would race barefoot.”
Worst line: “The old women shouted questions at him as he passed. He was always running, it was true. If he didn’t answer them, it wasn’t because he was out breath, for he was never out of breath.” This early comment sets the tone for the rest of the book. Has the world ever had a distance runner who was “never out of breath”?
Published: June 2007 www.serpentstail.com/book?id=10906
Furthermore: A recent review in the Guardian says that Tim Judah takes a more journalistic approach to Bikila’s life in his Bikila: Ethiopia’s Marathon Champion (Reportage Press, 2008), which doesn’t appear to have reached the U.S. www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/27/sportandleisure?gusrc=rss&feed=books, and provides a useful comparison of that book and Barefoot Runner.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.