From barefoot to borrowed, Ethiopian marathoners run to fame

Derara Hurisa.  

Derara Hurisa’s powerful surge to the finish on borrowed shoes at the Tata Mumbai Marathon 2020 pointed to the distance Ethiopian long-distance running has travelled from the days of barefoot Olympic champion Abebe Bikila.

The former made news for setting a course record 2:08:09 wearing a branded shoe, a product marketed as the running tool for faster performance. The latter covered the cobbled Rome roads on bare feet hardened by military training and was timed at 2:15:16, which became the Olympic record in 1960 (bettering Emil Zatopek’s mark).

Handed a Nike Vaporfly shoe by fellow Ethiopian Abraham Girma as timely replacement for Hurisa’s regular shoe misplaced in travel from Addis Ababa to Mumbai, the cross country runner revealed he wore the borrowed brand first time in competition.

It was also his debut run on the seafront route, emerging a clear winner among 70 elite men marathoners listed (improving on Gideon Kipkieter’s 2016 record). Incidentally, shoe lender Girma is not listed among the first 20 finishers in Mumbai.

Bikila, a soldier in the imperial guard, responsible for security to the Ethiopian ruler, Emperor Haile Selassie, decided to run in Rome without shoes, as recorded in history, after his regular pair got worn out and the new pair felt uncomfortable.

Familiar with barefoot running as part of army regimen, he arrived from Addis Ababa determined to etch the nation’s name in Olympic history. Wearing vest No. 11, he loped to victory on a route lit by flaming torches. The marathon was held in the evening to help runners escape the heat.

Hurisa’s winning time on Sunday’s run is inside the 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualification time for men (2:11:30), but the Ethiopian marathon running depth is such that the champion, on debut in Mumbai, may have to be satisfied competing for prize money in near future, eyeing contracts from athletics equipment giants, besides appearance fee from event promoters.

He was an unknown face, the only notable international representation was a second place four years ago at the African U-20 Cross Country event.

Bikila returned to the Olympic stage four years later in Tokyo 1964, became a hero after winning the second consecutive marathon gold, this time running in shoes and was gifted a car by the Emperor.

The business of road running, as Tokyo 2020 approaches this year, demands more commitment from sensations like Hurisa than just winning.

Richer by $60,000, the 23-year-old champion appeared for post-race media interviews in Mumbai clad in Adidas, live race footage showed him pounding the road clad in Nike special shoes.

Support from manufacturers is linked to brand endorsement. When quizzed by the media about the brand switch on the road and later, Hurisa replied that Adidas supported him with shoes and no contract was signed. Circumstances forced him to wear a borrowed shoe designed by a rival manufacturer.

The course record time on debut over the marathon distance is a startling feat, fuelled by impatience of youth displayed in the imperious finish leaving behind fellow Ethiopian Ayele Abshero in second place.

Did the shoe make a difference over a distance made famous across Africa by barefoot marathon legend Bikila? Only time will tell.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 3:25:34 PM |

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