Abebe Bikila

I first heard Mingus's "Better Git It In Your Soul" in 1960 when I was eleven-years-old. It changed my life. I became an instant jazz fan and have remained a fan ever since. How many life changing experiences can an eleven-year-old have in one year? In my case, two.

The second occurred in early September during the Rome Olympics. Imperial Bodyguard Abebe Bikila, a last minute addition to the Ethiopian Olympic team, won the marathon in record time…in his bare feet. It was the first Olympic Gold Medal ever won by a Sub-Saharan athlete. I watched the race on my parents' newly purchased Zenith color TV at our home in Philadelphia.

The 1960 marathon started and ended at the Arch of Constantine, next to the Colosseum. In a spectacular and mesmerizing display of romance and artistry, the last few miles of the race were run in the dark with only occasional spotlights to illuminate the course. Bikila, tall and graceful in red shorts and green singlet, the Ethiopian colors, outsprinted his lone challenger to the finish line and through the Arch, the lights of the Colosseum behind him. Bikila became my hero and I vowed to someday run a marathon.

Bikila again won the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. In 1969 he was paralyzed in an accident while driving the Volkswagen given to him by Haile Selassie for his Olympic conquests. The accident occurred when he swerved to avoid student protesters on the streets of Addis Ababa. He died of complications in 1973. He was 41.

On December 18, 1983, three days before the birth of my son Willie, I ran my first marathon, finishing in three hours and twenty-six minutes. I dedicated my training and race to my wife, my unborn son, and my inspiration, the great Abebe Bikila. —Will Jones

Will Jones recently retired after nine years as principal at San Luis Obispo High School.