Running Times Magazine

December 1984


(or 2+ Hours, to be Exact)

Loiter at any sports bar during baseball season, and as the suds and the season ebb and flow-this year, of course, the season ebbed more than flowed-arguments centering on the best ballplayer of all time occasionally end in the parking lot in a parody of a fist fight. Mellowed by too many miles, runners traditionally stop short of fisticuffs when discussing candidates for the greatest marathoner ever, but they're no less passionate.

"It's gotta be tough guy Derek Clayton. He set the world's best mark twice and held the record for a dozen years."

"Naw, it's Alberto Salazar. When he broke Clayton's record, he burst the psychological dam, and the sport hasn't been the same since."

"Clarence DeMar's gotta be it! He won Boston seven times and laid off running during the prime years of his career in the process. He coulda won Boston ten times if he'd wanted to."

"Jim Peters set the world mark four times and was the first to break 2:20 before he nearly killed himself in the heat at Vancouver."

"Yeah, but when he rolled into the '52 Olympics, Emil Zatopek beat him-after already winning the 5,000 and the 10,000!"

"What about Abebe Bikila, the first guy to win two Olympic golds in the marathon?"

"Well, how about Grete Waitz? She won New York nine times and revolutionized women's marathoning."

"Hey! We're overlooking the whole army of African and Mexican marathoners who've been dominating the scene lately." WHOA, WHOA, WHOA!

Just as a certified marathon course must meet certain standards, any discussion of the world's best marathoner requires parameters. There are four criteria for such a discussion:


Based on these criteria, one name surges to the fore.

It isn't the intimidating Aussie Derek Clayton, who once said, "I like to have someone next to me at 15 miles so I can grind them into the ground." It isn't the wonderfully normal Clarence DeMar, unassuming, unpretentious, a Norman Rockwell model of the self-made man. It isn't Bill Rodgers, America's king of the roads, who won both Boston and New York City marathons four times. It isn't Frank Shorter, the will-o'-the-wisp whose 1972 Olympic victory ignited the American running boom. Nor is it Jim Peters, the tough little Brit whose strange rolling running style contrasted so comincally with Zatopek's stabbed-in-the-heart, agonized style that made the 1952 Olympic Marathon so memorable. It isn't Grete Waitz, who owned the New York City as no other runner has ever owned a race. Nor is it the courageous Joan (nee Benoit) Samuelson, the overpowering Alberto Salazar, the ninja Toshihiko Seko, or four-time Olympian Rob de Castella. SO WHO IS IT?

This weekend, rent the film Marathon Man. Watch the opening minutes as Dustin Hoffman sits mesmerized by Kon Ichigwa's marvelous film clip of a sleek, black runner whose leanness makes his nose so prominent that it seems to cleave the air in front of him, opening a hole in the very ozone so that he can flow through it.

No runner personifies the beauty, the grace, the focus, the determination and especially the irony of the marathon as does Abebe Bikila. I find myself unconsciously writing about other marathoners in the past tense, the apex of their careers behind them, some of them gone to dust, while I just as unconsciously refer to Bikila as though he's still alive, running the high hills of sad, troubled Ethiopia. When I think of the best that the marathon can be, it's always with the image of Bikila. OLYMPIC RECORD

Abebe Bikila was a member of Emperor Haile Selassie's Imperial Body Guard. At age 24, private Bikila was sent to a training camp at 6,000 feet, operated by Swedish coach Onni Niskanen. Niskanen's training schedule was brutal: rugged cross-country runs-sometimes as far as 20 miles and often run barefoot-were leavened with 1500m intervals on the track. Then, as now, Ethiopia was pretty much closed off from the world.

It's little wonder, then, that when the barefoot Bikila lined up for the 1960 Olympic Marathon in Rome, he looked more like a bedraggled refuge than a world-class runner. No spectator had ever heard of him; he was summarily ignored. But he came packing a time of 2:21:23, run at the elevation of Addis Ababa.

Instead of having its traditional start and finish at the stadium, the Olympic Marathon in Rome began near Capitoline Hill and, at 30K, turned onto the Appian Way-a tunnel of lights and torches held by spectators. Between 15K and 20K, the lead pack of six dwindled to two, as Bikila and Moroccan Shadi ben Abdesselem surged. With 2K to go, the Moroccan surged again, but Bikila matched his move and held it until the end, moving 25 seconds ahead. Darting over the cobblestones, Bikila breasted the tape in 2:15:16.2, not only breaking the Olympic record, but also bettering Russian Sergey Popov's world mark by 1 second.

His results over the next few years were mixed. In 1961, he won three marathons between May and October. In 1963, however, he fell apart in the Newton hills of the Boston Marathon and faded to fifth. Bikila was vulnerable. In defeat, he vanished into Ethiopia. Some saw it as the end of a brilliant, but short, domination of the sport.

With the approach of the 1964 Olympics, though, came a return to form. At the Ethiopian trials, held at higher than 6,000 feet, Bikila won in 2:16:18.8. Mamo Wolde was .4 second behind. Six weeks before he was to leave for Tokyo, Bikila underwent an appendectomy. Observers thought he would be at the Olympics, but only as a spectator.

But when the 64 marathoners lined up on a warm, overcast October 21, Bikila was among them. Wearing shoes this time, he tucked in behind Australia's Ron Clarke in the early going. Running relaxed through 10K and 15K splits of 30:14 and 45:35, Bikila began to move away, and he crossed the finish line 4 minutes ahead of Japan's Kokichi Tsuburaya. He had run 2:12:11.2, lowering the world best again and becoming the first marathoner to win a second Olympic gold medal.

Having won three marathons in 1965 and 1966 and drawn by the high temperatures and high altitude, Bikila set his sights on the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. But he arrived injured, and although he ran with the leaders through 5K, he limped off the course 2K later. His injured leg had fractured. As though in compensation, Bikila's countryman and constant competitor, Wolde, won in 2:20:26.4, giving Ethiopia a sweep of the three Olympic marathons of the 1960s.

Before the decade had ended, tragedy struck. Bikila's neck was broken in a car accident, and the running animal who personified the fluid devouring of miles was paralyzed from the neck down. The once-lithe antelope began to gain weight, and his flesh seemed to form a buffer to hide him from the world he had once dominated.

At the 1972 Munich Olympic Marathon, Bikila was wheeled to a position near the finish line. A moment after Frank Shorter was awarded his gold medal, he approached Bikila, as though to receive the master's benediction.

A year later, on October 23, 173, at age 41, Abebe Bikila suffered a stroke and died. His spirit lives on in every stride we take in pursuit of his excellence.