the observer Sat 26 July 2008
It turns out that celebrated Ethiopian runners can join the list of things that share similarities with (pre-Livingstone) London buses. You wait the better part of half a century for a biography of Abebe Bikila, the marathon runner who, in Rome in 1960, became the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal (an event etched into many people's memories because he ran the race without shoes), and then suddenly you have two.
First out of the blocks was Paul Rambali's Barefoot Runner, which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2006 but is only now being released in paperback. This is an ambitious and evocative dramatisation that seeks to locate Bikila's achievements within the turbulent times in which he lived (for example, the symbolism of his first Olympic triumph taking place in Italy, which under Mussolini had annexed Ethiopia just 25 years before). There are walk-on parts for Nelson Mandela, the black power movement and a menacing cameo from His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah.
Now we also have Bikila: Ethiopia's Barefoot Olympian, a more journalistic effort which promises to tell 'for the first time' the true story of a humble man who was at one time, arguably, the most famous black African in the world. Written by foreign correspondent Tim Judah, the book is based on contemporary news reports and interviews with the friends and families of both Bikila and Onni Niskanen, the maverick Swedish trainer who spotted and developed the runner's potential. Judah did the bulk of his research in the late Nineties, so one can only imagine how he felt two years ago when he walked in to Borders and saw Rambali's book on the shelves.
Rambali is unquestionably the more lyrical writer of the two and parts of Barefoot Runner make you feel like you are pounding the pavements alongside Bikila, hearing his breath in your ear. 'He was serene, his concerns lost in a cavernous, calming emptiness that always enveloped him when he ran,' is how his victorious run at the 1960 Olympics is described.
But such an approach has its downsides. Take the car accident in March 1969 that left Bikila unable to walk and was ultimately responsible for his death from a cerebral haemorrhage in October 1973, aged 41. The reality is that no one knows exactly what happened, yet Rambali pictures Bikila driving to training in his VW Beetle, only to be forced off the road by a group of students ('screaming, blood-covered young men') who are being chased by armed police. The facts uncovered by Judah point to a less poetic explanation: Bikila was last seen in a bar at 9pm, the roads that night were wet and he was inexperienced behind the wheel.
Judah's Bikila is a less saintly figure than Rambali's. The accepted view is that he was unfailingly modest and dignified; a child who grew up herding cows and sheep, running 40km a day not for training but just for errands, who became a symbol of hope in post-colonial Africa. Yet it seems that, after his second gold medal, he became a different man: increasingly arrogant, often drinking to excess and womanising and generally behaving like the continent's answer to George Best.
There is not much that the Bikila story does not have and these two biographies offer belated recognition of this fact. If you need another reason to buy one of them, part of the proceeds of Judah's book go to the Swedish arm of Save the Children in Ethiopia.
· Tim Lewis is editor of Observer Sports Monthly
To order Barefoot Runner for £7.99 or Bikila for £11.99, both with free UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0885