Before Bikila: Glimpses of Africa's Early Running History
Glimpses of Africa’s early running history
Running Times "Footsteps" column, November 2009
I just got home from my first trip to Kenya. For anyone who cares about running, a visit to Kenya is like going to Italy for the art. I met Olympic medalists Catherine Ndereba and Paul Tergat on their home turf, bumped into four-time Boston winner Robert Cheruiyot shopping with his small daughter, and watched an exuberant children’s race that maybe contained some future champions. African running today is vibrant, but its early history is patchy and little known. So here I offer a first jog over the ground.
Running, like human life, began in Africa. The young female fossil from 3.5 million years ago who is famous in anthropology as “Lucy” was a perfect bipedal, her runner legs exactly like ours. Unearthed in 1974 in Ethiopia’s Afar Highlands, at that altitude she would have had great oxygen capacity, too.
In the wild our human stamina compensated for our lack of sheer speed. The stroppy elephant we encountered one dark Kenyan night could have galloped faster than our vehicle could reverse, but our ancestors could jog for days in pursuit of a hunted animal, or run to battle, as the Zulus did when they surprised the British in 1879. Their King Chaka reputedly could run 100 miles in 24 hours.
The first record I have found of a competing African runner is in a London newspaper of 1720. A black servant was narrowly beaten by a “Coffee-House Boy” in a race “three times round St James’s Park” (about 4 miles), for the huge stake of 100 pounds. He is not named, but was precursor of a great tradition.
Next came the two Tswanas, Len Tau and Jan Mashiani, who ran for South Africa in the 1904 Olympic marathon in St Louis. They were in town as performers in a Boer War exhibit at the Louisiana Exposition, but in their first marathon placed ninth and twelfth. The Tswana tribe migrated five hundred years earlier from East Africa, which might explain it. (Floris van der Merwe researched their identities in 1999.)
Some great Africans of the early 20th century are overlooked because they competed in the colors of France, like Algerians Boughera El Ouafi and Alain Mimoun, Olympic marathon champions in 1928 and 1956. French results in the International Cross-Country Championship are dotted with North African names. Mimoun won four times. The first was A.Arbibi of the Racing Club of Algiers, 12th in 1913, 26th a year later. Arbibi came back to place 6th and help France win in 1923, a remarkable but forgotten career.
The Kenyan phenomenon began not when Kipchoge Keino beat Jim Ryun by the biggest margin in Olympic 1500 history in 1968, as everyone believes, but with another neglected hero, Maiyoro Nyandika, who placed 7th and 6th in the Olympic 5000 finals of 1956 and 1960. In the 1960s, too, a German-born coach, Walter Abmayr, and an Irish schoolteacher priest, Brother Colm O’Connell, began to foster the astonishing running talent they found in Kenya, with results we now witness every week.
“Training is the only excuse I accept for missing mass,” said Br O’Connell.
In 1960, too, came African running’s dramatic emergence from the shadows, as Abebe Bikila (Ethiopia) and Abdesselem Ben Rhadi (Morocco) dueled in the torchlight along Rome’s Appian Way in one of history’s most significant Olympic marathons. Africa had arrived.