With the much-heralded 2012 London Olympics fast approaching, Clayton Goodwin takes us through some memorable Olympians of African descent, whose heroism in the Games is always fondly remembered forever.
The 2012 Summer Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the XXX Olympiad or London 2012 Olympic Games, are scheduled to take place in the British capital from the 27 July to 12 August 2012 – and yes, the main attraction will be Africa and those of African descent. But how far have black athletes come in the Olympics world?
Africa first hit the world’s Olympic Games headlines with the marathon triumph of Abebe Bikila at Rome in 1960. He became an overnight hero everywhere the Games were followed because he ran the very long race bare-footed and, it was reported widely, he had been a bodyguard to the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.
Whatever their governments may have thought or done, the people of Western Europe had taken warmly to the brave stand of the Emperor and his country against the overwhelming might of Italian aggression in the 1930s. And here, a generation later, there was an Ethiopian taking the world’s attention and its highest award for sporting endeavour in the very city from which dictator Benito Mussolini had launched that invasion.
The Games in Rome produced more than the usual quota of folk-heroes. Not just the winners, but competitors who captured the hearts of the public because of some characteristic in their personality. These were the first such Games to be televised extensively, with the images of the athletes being broadcast into homes worldwide. Hitherto we had read about the triumphs but now we could see what our heroes/heroines really looked like and how they achieved their success.
No image was more poignant than that of Abebe Bikila pounding out barefooted along the Roman roads, well ahead of the rest of the field. Earlier in the year British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had spoken of a “wind of change” blowing throughout the continent of Africa and here was an African bringing a wind of change to the complexion of the Olympic Games.
Bikila, the son of a shepherd, was not meant to race in Rome. He was added to the team at the last moment when Wami Biratu, the first choice to run the marathon, broke his ankle in a game of football. He couldn’t find a pair of the sponsors’ shoes that fitted him and so decided to run bare-footed. But he was used to running barefoot anyway, as he trained that way.
The race started and finished by the Arch of Constantine, dedicated to the conqueror who had brought Christianity to the Roman Empire. Bikila and Rhadi Ben Abdesselam of Morocco ran the race stride for stride until the former forged ahead in the last 500 metres. He crossed the finish line in the record time of 2:15:16.2 to become the first sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic Games gold medal.
A new hero was born. Bikila dominated international marathon running in the years leading up to the next Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964 but just over a week before the event underwent a hospital operation. Although he went to the Japanese capital – on the strength, at least, of being the defending champion – it was considered that the Ethiopian might not compete. Try keeping him away! He ran, won and broke and lowered his own record to 2:12:11.2. He was the first athlete to win the Olympic Games marathon twice. Far from being exhausted, Bikila celebrated his victory by going through a series of stretching exercises. It is a wonder he didn’t run a lap of honour! He went home to a hero’s welcome even greater than that of four years previously.
Nothing seemed to be more certain in sport than the fact that Abebe Bikila would complete a hat-trick of Olympic Games marathon victories at Mexico City in 1968. Alas, there he suffered an injury to his right knee, which made him pull out of the race at some 17 kilometres. At least he had the satisfaction of seeing his colleague and Ethiopian compatriot Mamo Wolde take the gold medal.
Life was not too kind to Bikila after that. The year after the Games in Mexico he suffered a car crash, which left him paralysed. An operation at the celebrated Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England improved his condition but still left him needing a wheelchair for mobility. He died, aged 41 years, in October 1973 from a cerebral haemorrhage, related to the after-effects of the accident.
Emperor Haile Selassie proclaimed a national day of mourning and, it is estimated, some 75,000 mourners attended Abebe Bikila’s funeral in Addis Ababa.
Wilma Rudolph of the USA was another athlete whom the world took to its heart. She was the sort of short, bouncy 20-year-old young lady whom people like to cherish as they would a daughter or younger sister. Yet there was much more to her than that.
The youngster from Tennessee had overcome so much already in her short life that it was a wonder she should be an athlete at all, let alone a champion. The 20th of 21 siblings (brothers and sisters), she was born prematurely and by the time she was 12 years old had survived a range of life/health-threatening problems, one of which was the often fatal, and certainly crippling, infantile paralysis. Wilma had to wear a brace on her left leg and foot, which caused them to become twisted. These setbacks made her determined to perform as well, if not better than, her able-bodied sisters and contemporaries. Yet her rise to fame was meteoric.
By the time she was 16 years old, Rudolph was part of the USA team, which won a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 metres relays at the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956. Her success at Rome four years later was phenomenal. She won gold medals in the 100 metres, in which only wind assistance prevented her time of 11.00 seconds from being recognised as a world record, the 200 metres in 23.2 seconds, which was an Olympic Games record, and in the 4 x 100 metres relay in the world record time of 44.5 seconds. She was lauded by commentators throughout the world as being the “fastest woman on earth”, “The Tornado” and, by the Italian press as “La Gazzella Negra” (the “Black Gazelle”).
Wilma Rudolph was not just the first African-American female sprinting star but the first woman of any nationality to achieve celebrity, as well as success, in the blue-ribbon event which until then had been the prerogative of men. In doing so she raised the profile of women’s track athletics, not only in the USA but throughout the world.