The ‘true story’ behind Bikila’s marathon success

By Matthew Brown
A book published this month claims to tell “the true story” of the first great Ethiopian Olympian, Abebe Bikila, the first man to retain his Olympic Marathon title, beating Britain’s Basil Heatley in Tokyo in 1964 (the closest a Briton has been to winning the Olympic Marathon in the past 60 years), after iconically running barefoot through the night-time streets of Rome to gold four years earlier.

Bikila, Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian, by Tim Judah, not only traces Bikila’s road to Olympic Marathon gold in Rome 1960, but “for the first time” describes his friendship with Onni Niskanen, the Swede who coached him to glory.

Described as a soldier and adventurer, Niskanen was “the architect” of Bikila’s success, says Judah. “Theirs was a most unlikely of friendships and yet their success dazzled the world.”

A launch is being staged for the book in London on July 15, from 6.30-8.30pm at Daunt Books, 112-114 Holland Park Avenue, London W11 4UA.

For more information, contact Laura Keeling on 07515 115021 or by email

Bikila, Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian is £12.99 from Reportage Press. Some proceeds to Save the Children Sweden in Ethiopia.

Read our review of Paul Rambali’s recent book on Bikila by clicking here

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