SI Vault
John Underwood
April 12, 1965
In Ethiopia only His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings and Conquering Lion of Judah, is more celebrated than the splendid Abebe Bikila, Olympic hero and the world's best marathon runner
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April 12, 1965

The Number Two Lion In The Land Of Sheba

In Ethiopia only His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings and Conquering Lion of Judah, is more celebrated than the splendid Abebe Bikila, Olympic hero and the world's best marathon runner

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"I have come to see Abebe Bikila in his natural state," I said. "Do you know Abebe Bikila?"

"Oh, yes, the champion runner of the Olympics. A wonderful person. Everyone knows Abebe. If you write of him, do not write lies. The truth is much better." She smiled handsomely. There is a bachelor I know who says that while living in Ethiopia he became convinced that misogyny was not a practicable conviction. Addis (the Ababa is dropped by intimates) is not just in Ethiopia, it is more the very heart, languishing in the thin air 8,100 feet above a sea most Ethiopians have not viewed. Once the best way to get there was by toy train from Djibuti on the Red Sea, a 500-mile trip that took three days because Somali and Danakil marauders made night riding a hazard. But that was long ago. You can get there today, too, by overland truck from Nairobi or by mule caravan—camels do poorly at that altitude. Mussolini made it in 1936 with mechanized war equipment, though the mountains are an intimidation. But it was pretty much left to Ethiopian Airlines to really open up the country. A case in point: isolated Ethiopia did not have an entry in an Olympiad prior to 1956. A respectable team of 12 flew to Tokyo last fall.

There is, of course, a good possibility—a likelihood—that if you just wanted to see Abebe Bikila you could wait where you are and he would eventually come running to you, for he has been sent great distances—to Prague, to Berlin, to San Sebastian, to Rio, Rome, New York, Tokyo—to run great lengths for the glory of Ethiopia in the six years of his competitive life. He will, in fact, run this month from New York City's fashionable East Side to the opening-day ceremonies at the World's Fair in Flushing 13 miles away.

But it is only in Addis that Abebe Bikila takes on full dimension, because for all his success he has remained, enigmatically, a shadowy, remote figure, speaking only his native Amharic, vaguely remembered for having won in Rome in 1960 in bare feet, for being a palace guard of Haile Selassie and for being mixed up somehow in the plot to overthrow Selassie in 1960. In Tokyo he ran the fastest marathon ever (26 miles 385 yards in 2:12:11.2) and did calisthenics on the infield grass of National Stadium while defeated opponents were being carried away on stretchers. Even at this supreme moment his name was recorded backward ("Bikila Abebe") in the official Olympic results.

A pleasant German woman helped Photographer Brian Seed and me through customs at the bright new Haile Selassie I Airport. She said that a rich experience awaited us—Addis Ababa—and that caution was applicable only in three areas: overtipping ("you must not spoil these people with your self-conscious tipping"), smuggling out monkey skins and talking about the coup of 1960. I told her I had to talk about the coup sooner or later, because when Bikila won the Olympic marathon in Tokyo every newsman there had a different version of his involvement. "Then be discreet," she said. She expressed concern over our project. "They tell me Abebe Bikila is very difficult, very difficult," she said. She put her forefinger to her nose and pushed up.

By request, on the ride to the hotel, our driver made a circuit of Addis, pausing for glimpses of the creamy-sandstone Jubilee Palace of Haile Selassie, unpretentious, ramshackle, richly landscaped; St. George's Cathedral, Trinity Church and Bet Mariam Church (the Ethiopians were Christian before the English); the imperial lion cages; the $3 million stone, glass and marble Africa Hall, "showplace of African unity"; the University College; the old market where you go to bargain for everything for the home from six-inch hot peppers to Galla warrior shields.

Addis Ababa, Amharic for "new flower," is a city swollen with 450,000 people, the capital of Ethiopia since 1889 and now headquarters of the Organization of African Unity. It sprawls out over 30 square miles and despite the gallimaufry of stark new buildings and stately old ones it is still mostly mud huts under corrugated iron roofs, huddled together and out of plumb. The rainy season takes care of the sanitation. The heavy odor of eucalyptus acts as a perfume. It is an ugly town, ugly as Hoboken, N.J. or Lowell, Mass. What had one of the stewardesses said? "Addis is not the beauty of Ethiopia; the beauty is in the country, the mountains and the lakes. You must go into the country."

For a while we followed an open truck on which rode a lion uncaged, shakily trying to keep its footing. There were new cars and sparkling Mobil stations and barefooted farmers laughing and beating the ground with their sticks as they ran behind laden donkeys heading for market. Everywhere there were people, people in jodhpurs and burnooses, muslin shawls and Hart, Schaffner & Marx business suits, milling and walking and standing and staring. The crowds kept the driver pressed to his horn but never slowed him down. Here is a riddle: Does an Addis Ababan blow his horn constantly because of the pedestrian's indifference, or is the pedestrian indifferent because the driver blows his horn constantly? In either case it is a good-natured struggle.

Addis plainly knows how to appreciate an emperor—we had come in at Haile Selassie I Airport, had passed through Haile Selassie I Star Square, down H.S. I Avenue, and now we were at H.S. I Hospital. The driver said that wasn't the half of it. There is also H.S. I Theater, H.S. I University and H.S. I Stadium, Welfare Trust, Foundation, Day School and Secondary School. The driver said he would not mind the adoration so much if the bureaucrats in the government would stop taking all the money and spread a little around to the people. Remembering to be discreet, I suggested that money wasn't everything. He said it sure as hell was when you weren't getting your share, and if some did not begin to filter down pretty soon there were still enough intellectual radicals around to get another revolution going.

Photographer Seed had his head out the back window pretending not to hear but, as a diversion, he ducked back in quickly and asked why no buildings had been named for Abebe Bikila, who by any criterion was the most famous nonpolitical hero in all of Ethiopian history. "Maybe they will, someday," said the driver, successfully diverted. "When Abebe is older. He is much respected."

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