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Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila Paperback – July 3, 2008

4.4 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Abebe Bikila, a soldier in the imperial guard of Ethiopia's Haile Selassie, wasn't just the first African athlete to win a gold medal in Olympic competition. He won the marathon in the 1960 games while running barefoot, then defied odds to win again in Tokyo four years later. Between the two victories, however, he nearly faced execution after being used as a pawn by leaders of an unsuccessful coup against Selassie. His life has all the makings of a compelling story—and despite being billed as a biography, Rambali's account takes a highly novelistic approach, imagining the inner thoughts of Bikila (1932–1973) and other figures in every scene. The technique is suspect, given the failure to cite documentation for such speculation when all the major players have been dead for decades. Furthermore, key historical details are inexplicably bypassed; when a German philanthropist donates hundreds of running shoes to Ethiopia's athletic program, for example, the name of the shoe company is never mentioned. Rambali also falls short as a dramatist, awkwardly juxtaposing Bikila's career against the personal turmoil of his trainer, Onni Niskanen, and the declining years of Selassie's reign. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


Beautifully written, elegiac biography of the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal. Bookseller Rambali brings the athletes, coaches, soldiers and their peculiar monarch beautifully to life in this strange, sad tale. Daily Telegraph Poignant...about far more than Bikila's exploits on the track. Time Out Delivers engrossing accounts of the Byzantine intrigues at Selassie's court...strong on documentary detail. It is impossible to remain unmoved by his accounts of the two great Olympic feats. Independent An ambitious and evocative dramatisation... lyrical... makes you feel you are pounding the pavements alongside Bikila, hearing his breath in your ear -- Tim Lewis Observer

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Serpent's Tail (July 3, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846686539
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846686535
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,886,395 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Hisham Ibrahim on December 18, 2007
Format: Paperback
I must first admit that I was disappointed to find out that this was historical fiction after i read it, but Rambali does a fine job. Besides the fact that he does portray Bikila as a pawn rather than his own man shows the meekness behind one of athletics' greatest champions, and though it may shatter some misconceptions about Bikila, it is a true reflection of the times in which he ran. (I did think however that Rambali could have painted a stronger image of Bikila, to show some more courage instead of constant confusion.)
When I first started reading it, I did not like how the book begins somewhat mysteriously, and it takes a few chapters before you figure out what Rambali's going on about and why he is doing so. I wanted Rambali just to focus on Bikila, but he actually wove together two stories: Bikila's and his coach Omni Niskanen's, all surrounded by the political and other turmoil of the time. I found this annoying at first because I wanted it to go straight to the running (which is a tall order, of course). But as I read on, I quickly realized the elegance behind this intertwining that results in their glorious meeting and friendship. The political goings-on that are included in the book help to give a reader a sense of wider context, which results in an even greater appreciation for this story and the achievements it documents.
Rambali does do the story quite well, weaving in many elements that make a riveting story. He splits the story up into short chapters so that it's easy to pick up and put down without losing too much track of the story. One of my favorite details of the book was that Rambali managed to put the two marathons on chapter 26 and 42, something that you don't notice unless you initially notice that the first Olympic marathon is on Chapter 26.
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Format: Paperback
This is probably one of the worst books about a champion runner I have ever read.

It has mistakes in times and distances that are so basic that it makes you wonder about trhe accuracy of the rest of the book. Unlike many other similar books that are written as if the author has been privy to the innermost thoughts of the chief protagonists and feature many reconstructed conversations, Paul Rambali gives no information about his sources. The deeper into I got, and the more mistakes that appeared, I began to believe that he has simply made most of it up.

That's OK, except for the fact that the book's presentation -- it is subtitled, "The life of the marathon champion Abebe Bikila" -- gives the impression that what we are getting is a biography. It isn't; it is historical fiction. And, from a running point of view, uninspiring at that.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
i bought this for my husband. he liked it very much. my husband is a hard core runner. this is a book for someone who has run a marathon or two (or more). get into the nitty gritty. it is nice as many runners, run solo. as the sport fits into the high acheivers lifestyle of being time flexible. often they have noone to sound off to. this book and others like it allow a runner to connect with the feelings, both ups and downs, of running.
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By TS on December 27, 2013
Format: Paperback
I absolutely loved this book. Having read Born to Run I have been looking for other books on running or adventure that inspired me the same way. I found this book completely by accident and I could not put it down, reading it in 3 nights. The author writes extremely well creating a real page turner. It weaves together the story of a great Ethiopian champion most of us have not heard about, an incredible coach and the leaders of Ethiopia in the 1950s and 60s. It did exactly what a great book should do, make you hungrier to learn more. I now find myself interested to learn more about Ethiopia, Hailee Selassie, Abebe Bikila and Olympic running. Now that I am on Amazon I learn that the book is historical fiction. I had no idea while reading it. I was under the impression it was a heavily researched and accurate book. (I guess I should research that!) While I am slightly disappointed, don't let this deter you from reading it. Very entertaining, energizing and inspiring. Enjoy.
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Format: Paperback
The book is a well-organized account of Abebe's life and influences. The writing style makes it an easy read and allows the reader to appreciate the context within which the story is set, which makes the core story even more powerful.
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