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Robin Williams and Abebe Bikila

Williams once joked about Abebe Bikila, a runner who, when he won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, ran barefoot and carried his sponsor's shoes.

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Abebe Bikila won marathon gold at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
Abebe Bikila won marathon gold at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
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"One of my favorite runners of all time was Abebe Bikila," says Robin Williams. "He was an Ethiopian distance runner, and we won the Rome Olympics running barefoot."

"He was then sponsored by Adidas. [When he] ran the next Olympics," notes Williams, "he carried the fucking shoes."

One of my favorite things about this joke is that it technically isn't a joke at all. That is, Williams doesn't have to add anything to it. He simply tells his audience a story about Bikila, but stresses certain points to draw attention to their inherent humor.

Another thing I like about it is how informative it is. Though not a barefoot runner myself, I know quite a few. I even interviewed one for Stride Nation. But aside from my reporting, I'm not as familiar with this aspect of the sport's history. Situational irony being the beast it is, I love that Williams' running joke (one of many from his career) gives me a window into the past, and a chance to learn more about barefoot running's storied Olympic roots.

Christopher McDougall's Born to Run touches upon barefoot running when the author visits the Tarahumara in Mexico's Copper Canyons. Considering that running is far older than footwear, McDougall ponders the necessity of running shoes. This helped launch a modern barefoot running craze in the United States that recently met with disastrous results.

But this is recent history. Humans have run barefoot for a very long time, and McDougall's recognition of this is late when compared to the long evolution of the human foot, leg and stride.

Aside from the Tarahumara, many researchers believe other Native American tribes, African tribes and the ancient Greeks ran barefoot. Many of these groups' modern descendants still do. This is where Abebe Bikila, Robin Williams's favorite runner, comes in.

Born on August 7, 1932 in the village of Jato, Bikila was destined for Olympic gold. Hell, he was born the day of the Los Angeles Olympic Marathon in the 1932 summer games. After working as a shepherd, then for the Ethiopian Imperial Guard, Bikila found himself recruited by the country's Olympic running team.

Walking, running and endurance were an everyday occurrence for Bikila. As Colin Gibson noted in his report for World Sports magazine:

"[As] a barefoot young shepherd-boy minding his family's herds, Bikila was used to walking and running several miles every day in search of grazing on the lava-strewn crags surrounding his home. At 13 he went to school and played ganna, Ethiopia's long-distance version of hockey, with the goalposts in the opposing teams' villages--maybe a couple of miles apart."

Bikila's inclusion on the 1960 Olympic team was late, so late that the plane was on the tarmac when coach Onni Niskanen called him up.

Adidas sponsored the games in Rome, providing shoes for all participants in running events. But because of Bikila's late addition to the marathon, Adidas had no shoes in his size. So Bikila ran the race as he'd trained for it: barefoot.

He won.

Four years later, he did it again at the Tokyo games.

This feat startles me and and most other runners because we're Westerners accustomed to easy access and use of shoes. When I started running in high school, I trained in shoes. Barefoot running was never an option. At no time did my coach or fellow runners propose it, let alone conceive of it. We just laced our shoes up and took off.

What Bikila accomplished at the Olympic marathons in Rome and Tokyo is amazing for two reasons. One, because it's the Olympic marathon, and winning such an event is amazing in itself. But it's more than that because he did it with his bare, unprotected and exposed feet.