Will Gore finds the story of Africa's first Olympic winner scintillating and sobering
Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila by Paul Rambali, Serpent's Tail £11.99
To many, a mention of the marathon conjures up images of the London version of the gruelling race: from Paula Radcliffe relieving herself by the roadside to grinning buffoons dressed as alarm clocks trundling past the Cutty Sark.
It's all a far cry from ancient Greece, when a messenger collapsed and died after running without stopping to relay news of victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, an occurrence that gave the ultimate test of endurance its name.
It is also far removed from the story of marathon runner Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian athlete who ran barefoot through the streets of Rome, becoming the first African to win a gold medal at the Olympics, in 1960.
Bikila followed up this feat, this time wearing running shoes, by winning the same event at the following Olympics in Tokyo to become the first man to win marathon gold twice.
In Barefoot Runner, Paul Rambali recounts the tale of Bikila's extraordinary rise from shepherd boy to Olympic champion, but the book is by no means a run-of-the-mill sports biography.
Rambali was part of a notorious clutch of New Musical Express journalists who covered the punk and post-punk eras in the late 70s and early 80s. He, along with the likes of Charles Shaer Murray and Nick Kent, sought to introduce to British journalism the kind of vivid feature writing that had been dubbed New Journalism by its chief exponent, Tom Wolfe.
It is this style that Rarnabali brings to Barefoot Runner. While publishers with an eye on the bestseller list and serialisation deals currently flood the market with hastily cobbled-together sports books by the likes of Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole (with a little help from their supernat
ural friends), Rambali has instead chosen to immerse himself in his sporting subject, as he used to with The Clash and other punk bands.
As a result, Barefoot Runner reads more like a novel than a biography.
The trajectory of Bikila's life was heavily influenced by two men: Ethiopia's last emperor, Haile Selassie 1, and the Scandinavian coach Onni Niskanen, brought to Africa by Selassie to turn his soldiers into Olympic champions.
Writing in the third person, Rambali interweaves their stories with that of Bikila's. Perhaps the imagined scenes and exchanges that make up the book may be problematic to some readers, but 1 couldn't help but be swept along by Barefoot Runner.
Rambali punctuates Bikila's rise with glimpses of the athlete's older self in hospital attempting to recover from a terrible car accident that left him paralysed. These snapshots make the tales of his marathon triumphs all the more poignant.
The author also possesses a neat turn of phrase and the potentially difficult task of recreating the drama of the races is thrillingly overcome.
Even though the outcome is already known, there is still a genuine joy to be felt in the moment Bikila crosses the finish line in Rome and is then lauded by the other athletes, "carded high on what seemed to be the shoulders of the world".
Barefoot Runner unfolds amid a backdrop of political instability and uncertainty. As Bikila struggles to become a champion, Selassie struggles to hold onto his power base. Rambali deals with the politics of the time with an even hand: he doesn't tnakes judgments or analyse; he simply presents his version of events and leaves it up to the reader to decide.
Bikila's unswerving loyalty to Selassie, for example, is presented as a facet of his naive and humble character, and he is neither castigated nor praised for it.
His naivete also provides some of the most amusing passages of the book. When an American athlete asks Bikila to show solidarity with the Black Power movement at the Olympics, the Ethiopian can only react with hemusement. Bikila, unaware of the magnitude of his fame, fails to understand what is being asked of him and leaves the American perplexed.
Barefoot Runner is an excellent book and presents a striking and original portrait of a true sporting legend, and best of all, there's not a ghostwriter in sight.