cover image Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila

Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila

Paul Rambali, . . Serpent's Tail, $20 (315pp) ISBN 978-1-85242-904-1

Abebe Bikila, a soldier in the imperial guard of Ethiopia's Haile Selassie, wasn't just the first African athlete to win a gold medal in Olympic competition. He won the marathon in the 1960 games while running barefoot, then defied odds to win again in Tokyo four years later. Between the two victories, however, he nearly faced execution after being used as a pawn by leaders of an unsuccessful coup against Selassie. His life has all the makings of a compelling story—and despite being billed as a biography, Rambali's account takes a highly novelistic approach, imagining the inner thoughts of Bikila (1932–1973) and other figures in every scene. The technique is suspect, given the failure to cite documentation for such speculation when all the major players have been dead for decades. Furthermore, key historical details are inexplicably bypassed; when a German philanthropist donates hundreds of running shoes to Ethiopia's athletic program, for example, the name of the shoe company is never mentioned. Rambali also falls short as a dramatist, awkwardly juxtaposing Bikila's career against the personal turmoil of his trainer, Onni Niskanen, and the declining years of Selassie's reign. (June)