Barefoot Runner, by Paul Rambali

Fairy-tale story of the shoeless wonder who left us gasping for breath
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The Independent Culture

The story of Abebe Bikila is a modern fairy tale. He was the first African to win an Olympic gold medal, and his underdog status was unmissable: Bikila won the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics in bare feet. He was the son of peasants and unused to footwear, but his upbringing on Ethiopia's high plateau gave him an enormous advantage. Runners raised at altitude can run further and faster because they need less oxygen and are less vulnerable to dehydration. Bikila complemented this unusual physical capacity with rare competitive spirit. Even confinement to a wheelchair following a car crash did not finish his athletic career; he soon switched to the Paralympics.

Bikila's first gold medal was political capital for his emperor. Haile Selassie I, King of Kings and the Elect of God, was then an autocrat with power of life and death over his subjects. Selassie wished Ethiopia - and Africa as a whole - to assume equal status with the developed world , but by the 1960s the gap between the emperor's medieval governance and Ethiopia's need to modernise was becoming unbridgeable.

Bikila's sporting glory meant he was beloved by the masses, and this made him a political pawn. Unwillingly conscripted into a coup attempt, he narrowly escaped execution for treason. Reluctantly, Selassie allowed him to continue running and he won his second marathon in Tokyo in 1964.

Bikila's victories are isolated positives in Ethiopia's modern history, otherwise saturated in tragedy. Paul Rambali delivers engrossing accounts of the Byzantine intrigues at Selassie's court. The final days of empire were marked by starvation and insurrection; the famine of the 1980s that prompted Live Aid was one of a ghastly sequence that continues.

Rambali is strong on documentary detail, but his narrative relies on imaginative recreation of Bikila's thoughts and feelings (he died in 1973). Factional biography has impressive literary credentials, but here Rambali's creative stamina sometimes flags as he struggles to keep pace. Bikila remains an enigma, forever a few tantalising strides out of reach.

Rambali's descriptions of the races that brought Bikila fame make up some of this ground. It is impossible to remain unmoved by his accounts of the two great Olympic feats, of the astonishment and joy that gripped crowds on the sidelines and television audiences as this unassuming Ethiopian came padding out of nowhere to leave the rest of humanity gasping in his wake.

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