Abebe Bikala, the barefoot marathoner

The marathon is really a hard distance to run; it is 42 kms of hard running. It’s hard on the body, particularly the feet which is why all marathon runners spend such a lot of consideration to exactly what is on their feet. Marathoners spend considerable time getting the appropriate running shoes and a lot of money is involved in running shoes. Back at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, Abebe Bikala from Ethiopia turned up for the marathon and there were no running shoes remaining in the teams supplies which would fit him, so he ran the marathon barefoot and went on to win the gold medal. This is often commonly acclaimed as a tremendous achievement. Recently there has been a group of runners who are suggesting the running footwear is not all they can be claimed to be and are recommending that running ought to be done barefoot, much like nature intended. After all, we were not born with footwear and historical humans had to run large distances without running shoes to survive as animals needed to be hunted on foot over long distances.

Running footwear are really only a relatively recent invention. Those who promote the barefoot approach to running love to point to the achievements of Abebe Bikala as even more validation that we don’t need running shoes. There are certainly a great many other justifications both for and against barefoot running, with not much scientific data supporting it. Whilst Abebe Bikala winning gold medal at the Rome Olympics barefoot certainly suggest that it is possible, what those who like to promote his achievements as evidence often leave out that he later went on to win the gold medal as well as break the world record in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games. Abebe Bikala managed to set the world record this time wearing running shoes; in other words he had the ability to run faster when he was wearing running shoes. We may well have evolved to run without running shoes, but we also evolved in an environment prior to concrete and hard surfaces emerged. While the achievements of him were extraordinary, making use of him as proof that it is better does not stack up to scrutiny.

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