At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Historic victory at Rome Olympics

Bikila's golden moment for African athletics



Abebe Bikila (left) during the opening stages of the  marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics
Abebe Bikila (left) during the opening stages of the
marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics
History was made on this day at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome when Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila won the marathon.

Not only did he run the whole 26 mile 385 yards (42.195km) barefoot, he also became the first athlete from sub-Saharan Africa to win an Olympic gold medal.

Bikila retained the marathon title at Tokyo in 1964.  Subsequently, the middle and long-distance running events have become increasingly dominated by sub-Saharan runners, particularly Kenyans and Ethiopians.

The British runner Mo Farah - born in Somalia - continued that domination by winning both the 5,000m and 10,000m gold medals at consecutive summer Olympics in London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro this year.

In total, more than 40 gold medals at distances from 800m to the marathon have been won by sub-Saharan runners since Bikila's breakthrough.

Bikila competed in Rome only after a late call-up to the Ethiopia squad to fill a place vacated when a colleague became ill.

Bikila on the podium with runner-up Rhadi Ben Abdesselam
Bikila on the podium with runner-up Rhadi Ben Abdesselam
He arrived with no running shoes but hoped to be supplied with some by adidas, one of the Games sponsors.  However, by the time Bikila went to see their representatives in Rome, they had only a few pairs left and none would fit him comfortably, so he decided to run barefoot.

It was no real inconvenience in any event because he rarely trained in running shoes.

The starting point for the marathon was the foot of the wide staircase leading up to the Piazza del Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill and the finish line was at the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum.

Bikila came home first in a time of two hours 15 minutes 16.2 seconds, which at the time was an Olympic record.  He crossed the line 25 seconds ahead of the Moroccan runner, Rhadi Ben Abdesselam, from whom he had sprinted away in the last 500m.

The beautiful Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill in the centre of Rome
The beautiful Piazza del Campidoglio on the
Capitoline Hill in the centre of Rome
According to accounts of the race, Bikila had been told before the race that Rhadi was his most dangerous rival but expected him to be wearing the number 26 on his vest.  In fact, Rhadi wore 185. The two ran side by side for more than half the distance with Bikila still believing there was another runner ahead of them, wearing 26.

Later in 1960, Bikila was briefly detained following an attempted coup in Ethiopia but was soon able to resume his career.  His winning time at Tokyo in 1964 was a world record 2 hours 12 minutes 11.2 seconds.

Travel tips:

The Capitoline is one of the Seven Hills of Rome.  It was the site of an ancient Roman citadel but few ruins exist.  The area was redeveloped in the 16th century in line with an urban plan drawn up by the artist and architect Michelangelo Buonarotti as a central square - the Piazza del Campidoglio - surrounded by palaces.

The parade of athletes at the opening ceremony of the 1960 Olympics at the Stadio Olimpico
The parade of athletes at the opening ceremony
of the 1960 Olympics at the Stadio Olimpico
Travel tips:

Rome's Olympic Stadium - the Stadio Olimpico - was built between 1928 and 1938 as part of the Foro Mussolini (now Foro Italico), a sports complex Mussolini hoped would enable Rome to host the 1944 Olympics had they taken place.  Originally named Stadio dei Cipressi and later Stadio dei Centemila, it was renamed when Rome won the bidding process for the 1960 Games, pipping the Swiss city of Lausanne.  Rebuilt for the 1990 football World Cup, it is now home to the Roma and Lazio football clubs and has hosted four European Cup/Champions League finals.

(Photo of Piazza del Campidoglio by Prasenberg CC BY 2.0)
(Photo of Stadio Olimpico by Alex Dawson (Flickr) CC BY-SA 2.0)

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