It was the first Marathon that neither started nor finished in the Olympic Stadium, instead offering a tour of the ancient city’s famous historical sites.
As an added flourish, they started the race in the early evening, guaranteeing that the runners would conclude by the flickering glow of a thousand torches.
But the organisers never imagined the winner would run barefoot, that he would be from Africa, and that his triumph would mark a turning point in the evolution of worldwide distance running.
No one had ever heard of 28-year-old Abebe Bikila before the race, and at the start the Ethiopian drew snickers: he wasn’t wearing shoes.
Given that some of the final kilometres would be run over the cobblestoned Appian Way, his approach seemed suicidal. Bikila paid no heed.
He ran an easy 5-K, was with the leaders at 10-K, and went to the front with Moroccan Rhadi Ben Abdesselam at 20-K.
The two ran the rest of the way side by side until Bikila, with a seemingly effortless glide, surged ahead in the last 1 600m. He made his move as he passed the obelisk of Axum, an Ethiopian relic plundered by Italy and moved to Rome. (It was returned to Ethiopia in 2008.)
Bikila’s time, 2:15:17, was not just an Olympic record, but a new world record.
Bikila wasn’t the first marathoner to go barefoot in the Olympics. South African Tswana runner Len Taunyane, finished ninth at the St. Louis Games in 1904. It is widely speculated that Taunyane would have finished in a higher position, but had to make a rather drastic detour after a dog started chasing him.
Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani (both South African) were the first South Africans’ to take part in the Olympic games. However, they ran as individual participants, not officially representing South Africa. Reports suggest the duo were in St Louis as part of a Boer War exhibit, where they were apparently paraded as tribesmen, despite being students at Free State University.