Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia will be there in his chromium-plated wheelchair, a doubly painful sight because he was so graceful and so strong before he was paralyzed. Now 39, Bikila became a historic figure in Rome in 1960 when he won the marathon: it was the first gold medal for a man from black Africa. He was unforgettable when he ran through the streets of Rome that day. He was barefoot and his stride was easy, though his legs seemed far too thin to carry him over so many miles. His face was set in a gaunt, brown mask that somehow seemed beatific at the same time it was grim. When he won, the mask cracked, bursting into a radiant smile.
He made Olympic history in Tokyo when he won his second consecutive gold in the marathon; there he did a handstand just after he broke the tape. He might have won a third marathon in Mexico City except that he ran with an injured ankle. He did not finish.
Now Bikila is a paraplegic; he cannot move from the waist down. In 1969 an automobile he was driving near Addis Ababa overturned. He was flown to England for special treatment and Haile Selassie himself made a trip to visit him there. But the doctors could do nothing and they say now that his chances of ever moving his legs again are a million to one.
Though he is virtually helpless, Bikila still holds the rank of captain in the Imperial Bodyguard. He was a private in the army when he went to Rome, was promoted to corporal after the gold medal, won promotion to sergeant in the Imperial Bodyguard before Tokyo, was made a lieutenant following that triumph and became a captain after Mexico City. "My life was enriched by the Olympics in that way," said Bikila.
He lives with his wife and four children in a cottage among groves of gum and eucalyptus on the outskirts of Addis. About his house are the shabby huts of his peasant neighbors. There is a seven-foot corrugated iron fence around Bikila's property, and inside, on brilliantly green grass, half a dozen sheep graze, chickens pecking at their feet. Inside the house, the floors are polished to a fine sheen and the walls are hung with war shields. His trophies, stained and discolored by the damp mountain air, are displayed in a cupboard. The scent of incense permeates the rooms.
"Men of success meet with tragedy," said Bikila. "It was the will of God that I won the Olympics and it was the will of God that I had my accident. I was overjoyed when I won the marathon twice. But I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have no choice. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily."
The path leading to Bikila's door is trod by dozens of Olympic aspirants who come to him for inspiration and advice. Little boys and soldiers alike arrive daily to visit him. They wish to run as he did; they wish to win as he did. It is a pilgrimage to Ethiopia's Olympic oracle. And the honor is more profound than any he will receive in Munich.
JESSE OWENS, PUBLIC IMAGE
The morning was warm and sunny in Binghamton, N.Y. On the infield, runners were warming up, the distance men floating with a long gliding gait, the sprinters chopping furiously through starts. Jesse Owens came down the stadium steps and walked out onto the infield with the short, bouncy, confident stride that appeared so often in the news-reels and movies from Berlin 1936. He was erect, square-shouldered, and all the fluid power that used to explode in his sprints still seemed to be available if he had decided to call upon it. Seemed, but only fleetingly. Jesse Owens was 58, pouched around the eyes and 25 pounds heavier than in 1936. The features of the older man scarcely resembled those of the young. But no one would ever be quite like the young Jesse Owens, who electrified the world by winning four gold medals in Berlin, a black man who threw the Aryan racism of Hitler back in his face.
Owens was in Binghamton for a teen-age track meet sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Besides the busy legs of competitors warming up, the infield was also alive with the grins of go-get-'em junior executives and the smiles of rising young salesmen. They moved in to shake hands with Jesse Owens and he was enormously friendly, enthusiastic, not unlike a Jaycee himself. There were only 100 or so people in the stands. The Star-Spangled Banner was playing through a loudspeaker from a tiny cassette recorder and a Jaycee said rather tremulously into a microphone, "I give you America's greatest Olympic hero, Jesse Owens!"