Barefoot, like Abebe Bikila

The age of reason. No, not the Enlightenment but rather the age when children supposedly start thinking “rationally.”  For some irrational reason, I remember my parents and their adult friends having conversations on the topic in front of us, children, my siblings and I. After all, they believed most of us were still in the age of unreason, thus incapable of understanding adult language. Back then, the magic number of years to reach the reason realm was seven, give or take. Today little seems to have changed, and seven has managed to survive science evolution and the new Millennia.

Reaching the age of reason became a landmark for those of us under seven. It was empowering. Siblings and friends who had already reached the rational paradise used it as a way to either disregard our ideas or disqualify us from joining games and other cool activities. Not that I did otherwise when I  got joined the world of reason.


I was happily enjoying my brief but happy age of unreason when Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Olympic Marathon in Rome.  I was totally overwhelmed, probably irrationally,  when I learned that, against all the odds, a runner from Africa with a super cool name had won the race, running barefoot! At the time, television was still emerging and, back in my home country, the Olympics were not broadcast. Good old radio was the first source of the incredible news. Soon after that, local newspapers were also reporting the historic feat. There I saw, for the first time ever, a photo of Abebe and, to me, he looked like a giant, skinny and omnipresent runner with magical feet.  At the time, I had no idea where Ethiopia was (again, thanks to the age of unreason). Not that that made any difference in my tiny universe. Abebe was my new superhero. I just wanted to be like him! See you later, Superman!!

As far as I can remember, I had always had a thing for sports. Here, I should probably point the finger to my late father who, at that time, was still a staunch football (the one played with the feet, not the hands) fan. A year before Abebe’s heroics, he moved the family to a new and bigger three-story house located a few blocks from the football stadium, the only one in a fast-growing city. Every Sunday afternoon, we could hear the roaring fans and immediately knew when the home team scored a goal. Even the house rocked then. On the other hand, the silence of the crowd usually meant real bad news.

I am not sure my mother enjoyed the noise. She was always busy trying to control the kids, among her seemingly innumerable chores. She never complained though. My father, who did, took me to my first ever football games at a very young age, totally disregarding the age of reason paradigm. I can still see images in my brain of some of those games. I saw many famous footballers back then.  I will forever be grateful to him for this – though I never got a chance to thank him.

Cycling was the other sport popular back then -still is. I promptly became a very young, albeit irrational, fan and used to follow the stages of the national tour circling the gigantic Andes mountains on a transistor radio. I  learned a lot about our national geography and the wide variety of local foods and accents in the process. I was amazed to hear the feats of those incredible riders climbing steep hills well-above three thousand meters (over 9,300 feet) above sea level for long hours, almost every day.

The new house was right on a busy avenue. Cars and buses went by all the time, except Sundays. Understandably, my parents did not allow us to go out unaccompanied. Managing five kids on a busy street could also be challenging for both parents and caretakers, so going out to play in the street was a privilege of sorts. The house backyard then became our main playground as did the two-car long garage (when empty) and the carpeted long hall right on top of it (never really busy), on the second floor. The latter were also transformed into our weather-proof sandboxes. We had tricycles in the early years which we rode on the backyard or garage, but we were not allowed to have bicycles thanks to the busy street. I only learned how to bike when I was almost a teenager.

While biking barefoot was then totally out of the question, playing football in the in-house playgrounds was not. On the contrary, such a safe environment and delicate surfaces facilitated the endeavor. My unreasonable plan was simple. Learn to master and kick the ball with my bare feet while assuming my feet were like my hands. That is, they should have the same fine motor skills as my hands if that is at all possible. It took years of practice. But once I joined the first team in elementary school, I played barefoot and found out unexpectedly that I could kick the ball better and farther than most of my teammates. I had already learned how to put a spin on the football and could convert most free-kicks into goals. One time I injured my right foot (I could run but could not shoot the ball properly) and had no option but to use my left foot for months. I thus learned to control and kick the ball with almost equal precision with both feet.

I have to assume that was one of the reasons the coaches selected me for the first-ever U-11 team from my school. The other was probably the fact the no one in the team playing forward was left-footed. I still remember our first official game. My position was left forward, of course. They guys from the other team were bigger height and width wise (I was tall but skinny, like Abebe!) and very tough. As soon as they saw me playing barefoot, they started to target my feet with their pointy cleats. Thanks to my speed, I managed to survive the murderous plot but somehow missed a penalty kick at the end of the game. The coaches were not that happy and blamed my bare right foot, informing me in passing that my barefoot football days were over, thank you. I mean, have these guys ever heard about Abebe? I continued to play for many more years, but always wearing sneakers or cleats.

Only many years later, when Abebe had already unexpectedly passed at an early age, did I get to see the footage of the Rome Marathon. I got goosebumps. Still do today. Abebe also won the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Marathon in yet another world record time. The magnificent Tokyo Olympiad documentary by Kon Ichikawa dedicates over seventeen minutes to this event. Almost two of those minutes are focused on Abebe, running in slow motion, so smooth as if he was never touching the ground, flying high with his magical feet and not a single drop of sweat to be found anywhere – but this time wearing shoes.

It still works for me.

Cheers, Raul

Print Friendly, PDF & Email