Most of our readers won't have heard of Abebe Bikila, the marathon runner from Ethiopia (at left, in front, wearing a green top and reds shorts). But I can't resist re-telling a part of his story that has to do with Rome. It's superbly told in David Maraniss' Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World (2008).
Bikila was one of only a few Ethiopian athletes in Rome for the summer games, and for most journalists and his fellow runners, he was an afterthought--no one took his chances seriously--and an oddity. He was odd because of his footwear. He had run his shoes ragged in a month of training in the Rome environs and then purchased new ones that didn't fit well. So he showed up at staging for the 26 mile race shoeless, having decided to run barefoot. Observing Bikila's feet before the late-afternoon start of the race beneath the steps to the Campidoglio, American runner Gordon McKenzie remarked to a teammate, "Well, there's one guy we don't have to worry about."
Given Rome's remarkable typography, much of the course was curiously boring, designed, perhaps, to avoid Rome's hills rather than utilize them: south around the Coliseum to Circo Massimo, left in the piazza known as Porta Capena, along the Baths of Caracalla, a right turn onto via Cristoforo Colombo, past EUR and beyond the GRA (a superhighway that encircles the city), back to the GRA and east along it (terminal boredom here) to the via Appia Antica, northwest into the city, again along the Baths the Caracalla, a right turn at Porta Capena, the final quarter mile to the finish under the Arch of Constantine.
From the gun, Bikila's race was invested with meaning, if not irony; in 1935, Ethiopia had been brutually invaded by a Fascist Italy keen to have its North African "empire." But there was more to it than that. Although the course was essentially a triangle, and doubled back on itself only briefly, the route twice took Bikila through Porta Capena. Going and coming, Bikila would run by an object with which most Ethiopians were familiar: the Axum Obelisk, brought to Rome from Ethiopia in 1937, a symbol of the Italian conquest, of Fascist arrogance, and of the Italy's imperial ambitions. (At one corner of the piazza is an enormous building in white marble. Today it houses FAO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization; under Fascism, it was the Ministry of Italian Africa).
Enormously talented and perhaps motivated to affirm Ethiopia's status as a sovereign nation, free from colonial domination, Abebe Bikila ran brilliantly on those bare feet. We can only imagine what he was thinking as he approached the Axum Obelisk for the second time, turned hard right onto the paved cobblestones with the Coliseum illuminated in the evening darkness before him, the Arch of Constantine--once reserved for the feting of Fascist heroes--just seconds away, and an overwhelming victory, in Olympic record time, in his grasp.