What it takes to be a champion: The man who ran a marathon barefoot

Written by Frank Calviño

Rome, 1960. While the entire world looked in amazement at the beginning of the Summer Olympic Games of 1960 on the historical city of Rome, Ethiopia was neck deep into a massive sports crisis. Their main hope for achieving an Olympic gold medal, the marathonist Wami Biratu, was severely ill. The emperor Haile Selassie blared in a rage that a replacement had to be found. But the Ethiopian Olympic team was not only undersupplied and undertrained, but also undermanned. In a last attempt to prevent the impending disaster, Major Onni Niskanen decided to invite a former Royal Guard and amateur marathonist named Abebe Bikila, to substitute the place given to Wami Biratu, and work as a “filler” just to have “two runners and two opportunities, for slim they were, to win the marathon”.

That year, Abebe Bikila ran barefoot through the streets of Rome because he was given a pair of Nike shoes that did not fit him. He ran without any previous Olympic level training, like a mad-man, searching another runner with the number 26 on his back. His mark was Rhadi Ben Abdesselam from Morocco, who was the best marathonist in the world at that point, and Bikila was given by Major Onni the “order” to “surpass Rhadi Ben, no matter what. He is our only target, our only goal. Winning is defeating the best. He is the best. Go out there and defeat him”.

Bikila ran in desperation, without proper training and equipment (remember he was BAREFOOT!) chasing an impossible goal, Rhadi Ben Abdesselam, who usually wore the number 26. Bikila did not know Rhadi Ben, so he only looked at the numbers of the runners, praying that he could find number 26 and thus the leading marathonist. But he could not. Throughout the entire race, number 26 did not appear, perhaps hiding even further in the horizon, or so Bikila thought.

In the final section, desperate for not achieving his mission, Bikila pushed even harder and started running at full speed to find the elusive number 26. He won the race.

Of course he never found runner number 26. The former Ethiopian Royal Guard, Abebe Bikila ran the last 20 minutes side by side with the runner number 185, the champion Rhadi Ben Abdesselam from Morocco, who that day was given, by mistake, the wrong number. When Bikila entered the finishing line barefoot, at full speed, the crowd went mad. Nike official were amazed, and shocked to a point of almost fainting, that someone was able to run without shoes, and the Moroccan champion famously asked “What the !&[email protected]#!#%&! was that man looking for??”. Bikila success was later confirmed in Tokyo Olympics in 1964, where he won again the Olympic gold medal in the marathon race. He is the only Olympic marathonist to achieve gold two times.

In the story of Bikila, you can find several clues and core concepts that are the key to understand the phenomena of “successful people”. Managerial ideals are spread all over in the Legend of Bikila. Let us remark only a few of them:

Set a clear goal: Bikila was given a direct and clear objective: Surpass number 26. The ability to create clear goals for your life, or to give clear commands if you are in a position of power, is vital to run an efficient and effective management

Understand the cost of opportunity: Bikila was given a pair of Nike running shoes that were, at that point, the peak of sports equipment technology. Yet, the shoes did not properly fit Bikila. So the Ethiopian Olympian understood that the pair of running shoes, instead of being an effective tool, could easily become a liability. He then proceeded to discard the liability BEFORE it could cause damage. Again, this is an exemplary decision that any good manager should take, in accordance with core concepts behind Total Quality Management of reduce waste and increase productivity.

Exploit your advantages: Bikila was a superb runner. So after Roma he trained and trained and trained. Although the Ethiopian hero did not have any former Olympic level training prior to his first gold, after the event, he committed himself entirely to an almost inhuman regime of training. If you find a talent, a competitive advantage (like Jack Welch pointed out) exploit it.

This kind of philosophy, that is behind efficient managerial practices like these three tips, is spread worldwide by Business Initiative Directions: an organization committed to educate, recognize and promote Quality Culture at an international level, allowing companies and organizations worldwide to attain the tools needed to increase productivity, profitability and become champions in their respective business areas.

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About the author

Frank Calviño

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