Africa Reading Challenge 6. Bikila: Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian

Last year, while trying to pick the sixth book for my African Reading Challenge, I explained how I wanted a book that wasn’t self-consciously a book about Africa. I wanted a story, a biography, a self-help guide, whatever, that just happened to be set in Africa. I failed. And as a result didn’t even manage to finish the six books that I was hoping to review.

Then along comes Bikila: Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian and I have my sixth book. This biography is most definitely a book that would be filed under sport rather than world affairs, but in telling the story of Abebe Bikila, who exploded on to the sporting scene at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Tim Judah has found a very human story that also reveals a huge amount about Ethiopian life through the 1960s and 1970s.

As he cruised to victory in the Marathon, Bikila was the first black athlete to win Olympic gold thus setting the tone for the rest of the century. That he did it barefoot pretty much in the shadow of the looted Axum Obelisk and only a couple of decades after Mussolini claimed Ethiopia for Italy, only added to the historical resonance.

Judah masterfully interweaves Ethiopia’s troubled political history with the story of Bikila’s triumph and ultimate decline. There are audiences with Haile Selassie, Bikila is detained during a failed coup and there are agonised discussions about whether it was appropriate for an Ethiopian to be seen running barefoot, such was Abyssinian pride.

Bikila’s is an incredible story. He and his coach, Onni Niskanen, revolutionised the way Africa was viewed by the rest of the world. But like many African runners Bikila succumbs to his celebrity lifestyle, drinking heavily and is eventually paralysed in a car crash. He died a year later.

Judah’s book is filled with some of the best sports journalism from the age, vivid accounts of Olympics past but at times it reads too much like a journalist’s book, heavy on sources and quotes. I would have liked him occasionally to put his notebook aside to fill in the gaps and round out the story. But then I guess the blurb wouldn’t have been able to say "for the first time, his true story is told". This is still a cracking read.

My previous reviews in the Africa Reading Challenge