The treasures of a pack rat recently emerged from Ethiopia are scattered here at my elbow by the typewriter. They are loosely tied together in my mind, but I am certain that in context they will diminish in significance. There are two copies of the six-page Ethiopian Herald. There is a Christmas card from Donald C. Sazima describing genna, an Ethiopian outdoor game played with ball and crooked stick. "Genna," it reads, "means Christmas." On an airmail envelope, courtesy of the Ethiopia Hotel of Addis Ababa, are scribbled two important telephone numbers without further identification and a phonetic spelling of the Amharic nech ferenge, which means, in the derogatory sense, "white foreigner," and a truncated quote, "something precious," which is underlined three times. I remember it as relating to a tribute to Abebe Bikila. Torn from an Ethiopian magazine is a picture story of Abebe and his handsome family, the text pretty much divided between the writer's lamentation on having been stood up by Bikila and his panegyric on what a great, unaffected man Bikila really is.
Also among these hoardings is a touring map of Ethiopia, directing attention to the hippos around Lake Tana, the crocodiles along the Blue Nile in Gojjam, the leopards of Kaffa, the lions of Bale and the wild elephants of Ilubabor and Harar. The map is red-lined with roads that hold up in the rainy season; the others, the vast majority, presumably do not. The map was a gift from "new" Blue Omo, "for the whitest wash in the world." Ethiopia now has television, and it is easy to foresee a day when Blue Omo takes unto itself the task of supplying Addis housewives with everyday, run-of-the-suds drama.
The net worth of these pieces, together with a rare Menelik II silver coin which, through persistent bargaining, I was able to get in the old market of Addis for four times its value, is pitiable, to be sure, and in the end probably serves little as a fact-finding pool on the marathon runner Abebe Bikila, twice an Olympic champion. If they point out the sharp contrasts of the world that produced Bikila, that is good, but it is easy to draw contrasts. Ethiopia in this respect is no different from any other place being alloyed by the 20th century. For example, on a cold morning when I ran (that is, he ran and I rode ahead) with Bikila there were women wrapped in muslin chammas and kemis, implacable in their progress, unhurried or unmoved by the beeping horn, padding barefoot along the road in the semidarkness. Every now and then we came upon men standing and staring out from doorways or leaning against mud houses, men wrapped in huge brown tentlike coverings—U.S. Army salvage winter overcoats.
But the item that is uppermost in any recollection of Abebe Bikila's world is not among these mementos, because it has to do with so illusive a thing as the sensitivity of the place—it is the sensitivity that impresses, that jars, from the beginning. Imagine being cast from sleep into a live orchestra pit where all the plinks and toots are sharply defined, never muted. That is what Ethiopia is like. It is a world of vivid colors and no shadings, where casual words and acts are quarry for incisive interpretation.
We had passed a pleasant trip skipping from Madrid to Rome to Athens to Cairo to Khartoum when—halfway from Khartoum to Addis Ababa, looking directly down on the beautiful beginnings of the Ethiopian escarpment—one of the stewardesses on the Ethiopian Airlines jet, a dark, straight-backed girl with glistening teeth, a sharp, thin nose and swept-back hair, noticed that I was reading a TIME magazine account of Queen Elizabeth's visit. "That magazine tells nothing but lies about Ethiopia," she said, inserting a tray of hors d'oeuvres in my line of vision. "It is a waste to read. Here, have a snack."
I asked if she would please point out the heresies so that I might better understand her sudden pique. "There," she said, "that part about the Emperor rolling out red carpets. Our Emperor does not roll out carpets for anyone." I remarked on her good English but begged to point out that she had run afoul of a figure of speech, that what TIME was really saying was that His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings, knows how to show a visiting dignitary a royal time or two.
"I do not know this figure of speech," said the stewardess. Her eyes narrowed. "But what of the dust on our planes? It is a slander to say the Queen traveled on a dusty plane. Look at our plane. Is it not as clean as any other? That is a lie about the dust."
I reread the passage. "Plain. P-l-a-i-n. It is the dusty plain out beyond the city. All plains are dusty, even in America."
She pouted as I worked p√¢té into a wafer. It was a day later that I discovered the source of her indignation. Bubbling up from the front and fifth pages of a week-old Ethiopian Herald was a passionate, colorful, hyperbolic essay: "Time And Time Again, TIME IS Caught Lying." After some exposure you come to admire The Ethiopian Herald for its nail-on-the-head journalism. One day there was a picture of a truck, wheels up in a ditch, cleanly stricken. Under it, this: "Try to foresee the possibilities." The Herald is government-controlled, as are all the news dispensers of Ethiopia. The government, quite reasonably, is sensitive to its public image. This has been particularly true since the abortive coup d'état of 1960, which was a manifest reaction to the country's painstaking emergence into the 20th century. (The illiteracy rate of Ethiopia's 20 million still runs close to 90%.) Censors are especially sensitive, therefore, to any perils to imperial authority, despite the great international popularity of H.I.M. Haile Selassie. A literary friend who resides in Addis swears that in the Ethiopian version of Julius Caesar it is Brutus who is done away with.
Back again, the stewardess proffered a platter of gum to carry us through the descent into Addis and asked, "Why have you come to Ethiopia?" The hostility had vanished. Rapport was on the way to being restored.
"I have come to see Abebe Bikila in his natural state," I said. "Do you know Abebe Bikila?"
"Oh, yes, the champion runner of the Olympics. A wonderful person. Everyone knows Abebe. If you write of him, do not write lies. The truth is much better." She smiled handsomely. There is a bachelor I know who says that while living in Ethiopia he became convinced that misogyny was not a practicable conviction. Addis (the Ababa is dropped by intimates) is not just in Ethiopia, it is more the very heart, languishing in the thin air 8,100 feet above a sea most Ethiopians have not viewed. Once the best way to get there was by toy train from Djibuti on the Red Sea, a 500-mile trip that took three days because Somali and Danakil marauders made night riding a hazard. But that was long ago. You can get there today, too, by overland truck from Nairobi or by mule caravan—camels do poorly at that altitude. Mussolini made it in 1936 with mechanized war equipment, though the mountains are an intimidation. But it was pretty much left to Ethiopian Airlines to really open up the country. A case in point: isolated Ethiopia did not have an entry in an Olympiad prior to 1956. A respectable team of 12 flew to Tokyo last fall.
There is, of course, a good possibility—a likelihood—that if you just wanted to see Abebe Bikila you could wait where you are and he would eventually come running to you, for he has been sent great distances—to Prague, to Berlin, to San Sebastian, to Rio, Rome, New York, Tokyo—to run great lengths for the glory of Ethiopia in the six years of his competitive life. He will, in fact, run this month from New York City's fashionable East Side to the opening-day ceremonies at the World's Fair in Flushing 13 miles away.
But it is only in Addis that Abebe Bikila takes on full dimension, because for all his success he has remained, enigmatically, a shadowy, remote figure, speaking only his native Amharic, vaguely remembered for having won in Rome in 1960 in bare feet, for being a palace guard of Haile Selassie and for being mixed up somehow in the plot to overthrow Selassie in 1960. In Tokyo he ran the fastest marathon ever (26 miles 385 yards in 2:12:11.2) and did calisthenics on the infield grass of National Stadium while defeated opponents were being carried away on stretchers. Even at this supreme moment his name was recorded backward ("Bikila Abebe") in the official Olympic results.
A pleasant German woman helped Photographer Brian Seed and me through customs at the bright new Haile Selassie I Airport. She said that a rich experience awaited us—Addis Ababa—and that caution was applicable only in three areas: overtipping ("you must not spoil these people with your self-conscious tipping"), smuggling out monkey skins and talking about the coup of 1960. I told her I had to talk about the coup sooner or later, because when Bikila won the Olympic marathon in Tokyo every newsman there had a different version of his involvement. "Then be discreet," she said. She expressed concern over our project. "They tell me Abebe Bikila is very difficult, very difficult," she said. She put her forefinger to her nose and pushed up.
By request, on the ride to the hotel, our driver made a circuit of Addis, pausing for glimpses of the creamy-sandstone Jubilee Palace of Haile Selassie, unpretentious, ramshackle, richly landscaped; St. George's Cathedral, Trinity Church and Bet Mariam Church (the Ethiopians were Christian before the English); the imperial lion cages; the $3 million stone, glass and marble Africa Hall, "showplace of African unity"; the University College; the old market where you go to bargain for everything for the home from six-inch hot peppers to Galla warrior shields.
Addis Ababa, Amharic for "new flower," is a city swollen with 450,000 people, the capital of Ethiopia since 1889 and now headquarters of the Organization of African Unity. It sprawls out over 30 square miles and despite the gallimaufry of stark new buildings and stately old ones it is still mostly mud huts under corrugated iron roofs, huddled together and out of plumb. The rainy season takes care of the sanitation. The heavy odor of eucalyptus acts as a perfume. It is an ugly town, ugly as Hoboken, N.J. or Lowell, Mass. What had one of the stewardesses said? "Addis is not the beauty of Ethiopia; the beauty is in the country, the mountains and the lakes. You must go into the country."
For a while we followed an open truck on which rode a lion uncaged, shakily trying to keep its footing. There were new cars and sparkling Mobil stations and barefooted farmers laughing and beating the ground with their sticks as they ran behind laden donkeys heading for market. Everywhere there were people, people in jodhpurs and burnooses, muslin shawls and Hart, Schaffner & Marx business suits, milling and walking and standing and staring. The crowds kept the driver pressed to his horn but never slowed him down. Here is a riddle: Does an Addis Ababan blow his horn constantly because of the pedestrian's indifference, or is the pedestrian indifferent because the driver blows his horn constantly? In either case it is a good-natured struggle.
Addis plainly knows how to appreciate an emperor—we had come in at Haile Selassie I Airport, had passed through Haile Selassie I Star Square, down H.S. I Avenue, and now we were at H.S. I Hospital. The driver said that wasn't the half of it. There is also H.S. I Theater, H.S. I University and H.S. I Stadium, Welfare Trust, Foundation, Day School and Secondary School. The driver said he would not mind the adoration so much if the bureaucrats in the government would stop taking all the money and spread a little around to the people. Remembering to be discreet, I suggested that money wasn't everything. He said it sure as hell was when you weren't getting your share, and if some did not begin to filter down pretty soon there were still enough intellectual radicals around to get another revolution going.
Photographer Seed had his head out the back window pretending not to hear but, as a diversion, he ducked back in quickly and asked why no buildings had been named for Abebe Bikila, who by any criterion was the most famous nonpolitical hero in all of Ethiopian history. "Maybe they will, someday," said the driver, successfully diverted. "When Abebe is older. He is much respected."
At the modern, Western-style Ethiopia Hotel we were joined by a young American itinerant named Peter Rand who was doing a book on Africa. I told him there seemed to be an uncommon lot of Europeans in Ethiopia. He said there were a lot of Americans in Ethiopia, including 550 with the Peace Corps trying to do the work of 5,000. He said as a rule of thumb you could tell the Peace Corps by their idealistic white tennis shoes.
Rand had made preliminary contact with Abebe. "Protocol," he said. "The first thing you must etch in your mind is protocol. You do not just ring him up and say, 'Abebe, baby, here we are!' There are channels. He is a lieutenant in the Imperial Bodyguard, and the Bodyguard is very big. I think you'll find him cooperative and interesting. A little reserved, but that is partly the language difference. He is very intense.
"The first thing to do now is to go see his coach, Onni Niskanen. Abebe loves him. Niskanen was a major in the Swedish army. Still holds his rank, I think. Anyway, the major said Abebe might be at his house for a sauna bath and massage at 5. He has the only sauna in town and Abebe comes twice a week. Maybe we can all have a sauna."
The naming of streets, together with their paving, is a casual thing in Addis, not meant to mollycoddle explorers. Specific directions are required. Niskanen, said Rand, had told him his house was left at the first corner from the German embassy. There would be a name in capital letters—NISKANEN—on the fence. "All the better homes have fences or walls and a guard at the gate," Rand explained. "Petty larceny is not uncommon in modern Africa."
For two hours we poked around the German embassy. Rand disappeared into half a dozen compounds and one English day school, only to reappear each time with no hint of Major Niskanen's existence. After a series of telephone calls Rand deduced that he had misinterpreted Niskanen's Swedish-accented directions: it was not the German embassy he lived near, it was the Yemen embassy, which is on the other side of town. When we arrived the house was boarded up tight. Major Niskanen had gone to a party.
Back at the hotel, our smiling driver—Why was he smiling? Taxi drivers do not smile—said, "Thank you," in perfect English and that the fare would be 30 Ethiopian dollars. That was why he was smiling. Rand took this as a signal for protracted negotiations, at one point in which he unleashed the fact that the average annual wage of an Ethiopian is 100 Ethiopian dollars. Such a tour de force inevitably wore the driver down. We paid 20 dollars, about $8 U.S. "I love to test my bargaining powers," said Rand. I withheld a tip.
"Well, since we can't get started tonight, we might as well see the town," said Rand, rubbing his hands together. Photographer Seed said he would rather go to bed. Rand outlined an evening in which we would check out the Haile Selassie I Theater—a B-grade American movie, 13 Fighting Men, was attracting massive indifference at the box office, a demonstration of Ethiopian good taste—and then go on to the Piazza—Haile Selassie I Star Square—and at least take a walk through The Desert, which is the Place Pigalle to 10,000 Addis strumpets "but is more a place to socialize in tiny little bars." When you go in one, he said, the lady bartender quickly changes the record on the phonograph from Ethiopian instrumentals, which sound like gall-bladder trouble, to something nostalgic, like Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goo'Bye. Abebe was supposed to have spent a lot of time in The Desert when he was recuperating from an injury in 1961. And then, said Rand, we'll wind up at the Sheba, a swanky nightspot that is so popular you never get a seat and so dark inside you wouldn't know it if you did get one. There is more than casual reference to Sheba in Ethiopia. The national heritage is supposed to have dated to the time the Queen of Sheba paid an overnight visit to King Solomon 3,000 years ago. The meeting, Ethiopians proudly acclaim on painted comic-strip scrolls that are irresistible to tourists, produced Menelik I, first Emperor of the land.
"But what we should do first," said Peter, "is have the dish Abebe Bikila eats every day of his life, the national dish of Ethiopia, wat and anjera. The wat is lamb and chicken swabbed with a thick, spiced butter sauce with boiled eggs and hot peppers. The anjera is a farinaceous, gray, flat cake rolled up to look like an Ace bandage. You scoop up the wat with pieces of the anjera, as a first baseman would pick up a low throw. It is delicious, but so hot it will turn you purple."
I said that the condition of my stomach was uncertain and that I did not want to wind up back at the hotel drinking mineral water with Photographer Seed, so it might be better to put off the wat for another time.
"Good," said Peter. "I know where we can get some great lasagna."
Early the next morning Major Niskanen, taking the initiative in our tangled liaison, came to the hotel, and we drove to the home of Don Sazima, an American track coach who as a Fulbright scholar heads up the department of physical education at H.S. I University. Over rolls and coffee I said that it was already Sunday and we had not yet had even a glimpse of Abebe Bikila's footprints.
"That's not bad," said Sazima, grinning. "A Japanese coach was here for two weeks and saw him only twice."
Niskanen said it would be impossible to see Bikila before Monday, because he had gone to his farm in Jirru, 100 miles away in the country. "But I have arranged for you to meet Colonel Bekele, Abebe's commander in the Bodyguard. Everything will be cleared then, and it will be easy."
"Protocol," said Sazima comfortingly. "Everything stands or falls on protocol."
Niskanen is a handsome blond bachelor of 54, flat-stomached from past years of running cross-country and present games of tennis with lady friends. He speaks six languages, including Amharic; he is friendly and accommodating in each. He has been in Ethiopia since 1947, when he came to help organize an athletic program and stayed to become head of the national board of physical education. He is now secretary general of the local Red Cross, but in his free time coaches Bikila and some of the other Ethiopian distance runners, notably Mamo Wolde, who was fourth in the 10,000 meters in Tokyo. Abebe calls Niskanen abbat, which means father. When they are together they spar and wrestle like cubs, and there is much hugging and backslapping. There are some supernationalistic Ethiopians who resent Niskanen's close relationship with Abebe, but in denying that it exists they become ridiculous. (One said to me, "Ah, yes, Major Niskanen. He has a fine sauna bath; that is why Abebe goes to him.")
"Before 1959 I hardly knew who this Abebe was," said Niskanen. "He ran only third in the marathon trials for the Rome Olympics and already then he was 27 years old.
"At the beginning we had much trouble. He did not hold his head properly, his arms flew all over, his balance was bad. I had to keep yelling at him. Not yell, really, because I do not yell. But sometimes he was hard to convince, like with the vitamins. I had to show him how they put the good color in Mamo Wolde's cheeks.
"But the dedication, the willpower of this man—there is none like him I have ever seen. Abebe was made by Abebe, not by me or anyone. People asked if he was surprised he won in Rome. He had never run out of the country before. They do not know Abebe. He always expects to win. He does not even know who he is racing against. Clarke, Heatley, Vandendriessche, Edelen? They are just names. Only Mamo he fears, and he defeats Mamo. He has no anxieties."
Why had Abebe run barefoot in Rome?
"It is not so strange for an Ethiopian to run barefoot. Look around. When he runs I have made a count—98 steps a minute barefoot, a step each time the right foot hits. With shoes, 96. You see? But shoes are better on a strange course because of stones and things that might cut you. His feet are not long, size 9 or 10, but in Rome we could not get the shoes that were right. He had blisters from some he had tried. So Abebe said to me, 'Never mind. I will win without shoes. We will make some history for Africa.' He is a great patriot."
Speaking of patriotism, I said, what of the reports that he was involved in the attempted coup of 1960?
Niskanen stirred his coffee quietly, betraying no discomfort. I added cream to mine. Ethiopian coffee is delicious, but it takes a quarter pint of cream to lighten it.
"Abebe was playing basketball when it began," said Niskanen. "He loves to play basketball. His officers, the leaders of the coup, told him to go home and wait for orders, and that is what he did. He went home and waited. That is the way of the Ethiopian soldier, they do exactly as they are told. That is why they are good soldiers. Many of the Bodyguard were told they were protecting the Emperor, not revolting against him. There was much confusion. Before long it was over, and the leaders were hanged in the square. Abebe was questioned, but he was not involved. He never left his home."
I said that many Americans who had seen Abebe run in the Boston Marathon in 1963 were now, in retrospect, wondering what had happened—he led until the last five miles, then finished a fading fifth.
"I was not in Boston with him," said Niskanen. "It was cold and he did not dress warmly for the race, and then he did not have his glucose. At 20 kilometers in the Olympic marathon [about halfway] I have fruit juice with glucose and rose hip waiting for him. I am not allowed to hand it to him, but he picks it up and I yell to him, 'Ahun hid!' Now go! But in Boston he did not have the glucose. Without sugar the lactic acid builds up. Soon he and Mamo began to get cramps and they were sitting on the sidewalk massaging their legs, three, four times."
"But they finished. They are like automobiles, those two," said Sazima. "You crank them up and they go until they are out of gas. They do not know how to quit."
Abebe insists on—demands—Niskanen's counsel, even though this sometimes causes the supernationalists outside the Bodyguard—who would rather someone else besides a nech ferenge got credit for Abebe's development—to become jealous. It was at Niskanen's gentle insistence that Bikila laid off training for six months in 1961 to allow time for a leg injury to heal, a layoff that many did not understand, and it was at Niskanen's gentle insistence in a taut situation that Abebe went through with an appendectomy four weeks before the Tokyo Olympics. Niskanen feared the appendix would burst during the race. He had had his own appendix removed only a month before that and recovered quickly. Doctors assured him that Abebe, with his fat-free physique, would recover even quicker. Two weeks after the operation Abebe was back in training. He says now he will run in Mexico City only if Niskanen is there, just as Niskanen was in Rome and Tokyo.
Colonel Bekele, Abebe's immediate superior, whose waking hours are much taken up with Abebe's itinerary, was indeed the man to open doors and, as his guests, we were waiting inside the Imperial Bodyguard grounds the next morning when Abebe jogged in ahead of his squad of 13 men. The Bodyguard is an elite corps separate from the army, specifically designated as the troops immediately surrounding and responsible to Haile Selassie. Abebe has served as a guard at the palace gate, was once a truck mechanic, but now as sports instructor is concerned only with the physical training of his men and himself. Often he runs with the Bodyguard after he has run two hours in the morning. This morning he wore the kelly-green sweat suit of the Olympic team, with ETHIOPIA in capitals across the back, and he ran beside Mamo Wolde. I had remembered from seeing him in Tokyo how magnificent his face is: a solitary pecan, long and desperately sober, as if settled by an inner commitment to austerity; high cheekbones, heavy lips, an almost Roman nose, eyes that at the same time seem to see nothing and to see everything. There is great strength in his face. He could be a Bedouin caliph. Or an Arabian emir. Or the son of an American Indian chief.
He was sweating as he came up. Naturally, a man who runs will also sweat, but for a moment it was a surprise. Watching his postmarathon repertoire of exercises in Tokyo, I had imagined that he probably did not sweat, did not breathe hard, did not have a pulse.
After calisthenics, which he led, Abebe's squad stripped down to flashy red-and-green uniforms for basketball. Abebe had blue socks pulled up high around his meager calves. He gives an appearance of height, but he is no more than 5 feet 10. He weighs 127 pounds. Most Ethiopians are strong only from the waist down. Abebe's legs, even for a distance runner, are very thin, but they are his strength. Later he said he did not lift weights, "because all my energy is below my waist." He said he wore the blue socks that morning because it was cold when he started out.
The basketball that followed was played without finesse, just as an American attempt at genna or gooks might be, but Bikila demonstrated an effective two-hand jump shot that he was not reluctant to launch. Each time he made a shot he turned to see if he was being properly appreciated.
Colonel Bekele had supplied us with two interpreters, Lieuts. Tekeste Abbay and Assefa Kebede. I asked Lieut. Assefa if Lieut. Abebe was a good officer. First names are used formally in Ethiopia and then passed on to the children as the surname. For example, Abebe Bikila's son Dawit (David) will become Dawit Abebe.
"He is a good officer, but he has not yet had his formal officer's schooling," said Lieut. Assefa. "He plans to get that soon. His promotion was like no other. It is not customary for an enlisted man to become an officer without schooling. But the Emperor personally made Mr. Abebe a first lieutenant after he won at Tokyo. It was a great occasion, a great tribute. The government also gave him a Volkswagen."
I asked about the coup, and he posed a better question for me: "Would Mr. Abebe have been so wonderfully honored if he had been a revolutionary?"
Abebe had abandoned the basketball game for the tennis court 50 feet away. We moved down to watch him. He showed an alertness for the ball and a quickness to get into position. His backhand was strong. Once, I was told, he had been an outstanding soccer player. He came over then, and with Wolde we all went into the officers' club, where we sat beneath a huge portrait of Haile Selassie and were served coffee and Cokes and orange juice by a pretty Ethiopian waitress. Mamo, normally an effusive, outgoing man, was subdued in the plush room. His old buddy, the parvenu, is now a lieutenant, but Mamo is still only a sergeant.
As Abebe talked and conversation lightened, his reserve—that little touch of aloofness—began to wane. His smile is slow, but when it comes it is complete and rewarding, like the opening of a wide curtain. In his Amharic he is animated, and his answers, even in translation, are long and colorful. Much of his humor was lost in translation, but Lieuts. Assefa and Tekeste and Sergeant Mamo laughed often.
Abebe said his good fortune began the day he came to Addis to visit his mother 14 years ago. She had divorced his father and moved into the city from Jirru. Abebe had never seen anything like Addis, and one day he came upon a squad of Imperial Bodyguards training for the Korean war. They were sharply uniformed; they had precision, discipline, polish. Said Abebe, "I was very much moved."
A private in 1956, a sergeant after winning in Rome in 1960 and a lieutenant last November, Abebe had jumped in four years from the equivalent of $24 American a month to $86. "That was a great thing," he said of the Emperor's special promotion, "greater for me than winning the Olympics." His lieutenant friends smiled approvingly. "I realize now I am a responsible man, and I am glad to have this responsibility. My old friends now salute me and call me sir, but they are still my friends. I now have a future for my old age."
"Mamo is going to school soon," said Lieut. Assefa. "He, too, will be a lieutenant."
I told Abebe the last time I saw him he was doing sit-ups and push-ups and drawing cheers and laughter in Tokyo National Stadium from people who could not believe their eyes.
"While I did my exercises, others were carried away in blankets," he said. "Long ago I learned the cramps and dizziness would come if I suddenly stopped after running so long. I have my normal habits that I must follow. The people cheered for the love of sports."
His training, he said, is year-round. He loves to run. There is a story, probably apocryphal but not disproved, that, in Jirru, Abebe used to chase pheasant until they fell from exhaustion. Under Niskanen's instruction he follows an interval system of speed training—but instead of dash, stop, dash he runs fast, slow, fast. The object is to develop stamina and speed at the same time. Twice a week he runs for two hours—as many as 20 miles—in the early morning. I asked if he knew he gained two steps a minute running barefoot. "I only run," he said. "I do not count steps."
What of the theory that his lungs had developed an uncommon capacity because of the stress put on them by the thin air of Addis? "You may have the largest lungs in all the world," I said.
"Maybe that is true, but I do not know. I was examined once in Rome by a doctor. He made many tests, but I do not have the results. It is true that the air here is much different. I think if we invited other runners to run in Ethiopia they would not complete 20 kilometers. It will be good for me in Mexico City because the elevation there is the same."
What of his eating habits? Dr. Warren Guild of Boston, who boarded Abebe and Wolde when they were there for the marathon in 1963, said that the two went through an $11 rib roast in seven minutes, at a cost to Dr. Guild of $1.30 a minute. He called them fantastic eaters, powerful guzzlers of fruit juice, milk and tea. "I understood many Ethiopians exist on wat and anjera," I said. "Can you run on only that?"
"In the morning I have kinche [porridge] said Abebe. "In the day I have wat, but I also have fresh vegetables. Sometimes I eat raw meat, as our people do." He smiled. There is a high incidence of stomach worms in Ethiopia. "Do not tell your people to eat raw meat," he said.
"I understand you were much criticized in 1961 when you quit training for six months. You were seen in places where you had not been seen before."
Abebe seemed surprised. "I tore a ligament in my leg in Prague before a race," he said. "I ran anyway. But it did not get better. At last it was decided not to train for six months. I did not mind about the injury because I knew it would not last four years, and that is the important thing, to be ready for the Olympics. That is the only thing. The criticism I did not know about. How would the people know I had stopped training? I do not run where they see me so much. I run in the morning, before it is light. Naturally, I had more time to do things. I grew a beard. I put on much weight. I went from 55.2 kilos [120 pounds] to 61 kilos ." He put his hand on his stomach. "Right here. But it was not hard to remove."
"Is it true that the only man you fear is Mamo?" I glanced at Mamo, who was concentrating on his juice glass. Mamo did not look up.
"I do not fear anyone," said Abebe evenly, a man stating a fact as he knew it. "Mamo can compete with me, but I know that I will beat Mamo. The others, I do not know even their names. People who want to know names and faces are afraid they will lose. I do not have to know the faces of those I will exceed."
Mamo was asked if he had anything to say about this. "It is right what Lieut. Abebe says. I know he will beat me. But if my leg had not been hurt in Tokyo I would have also run the marathon and made him set a better record." Niskanen believes that Abebe and Mamo will run one-two in Mexico City in 1968.
The next morning, at dawn, we assembled outside Abebe's house for his run into the foothills outside of Addis. The night chill, which always gives way to comfortable warm days in Ethiopia, had not passed, and he wore a brown jacket over his green sweat suit. "Abbot!" he cried to Niskanen. "Lej!" Niskanen answered, and threw a left hook that Abebe caught with two hands just in front of his mustache. They sparred and grappled in the semidarkness.
Abebe then ran up the stony path from his house onto the pavement of the Entotto Road. Early-morning travelers watched but made no sign of recognition. Once, days later, when we were together in his Volkswagen, a driver in another car tipped his hat and Abebe nodded, but Ethiopians usually do not fawn over or chase after their heroes in the way of Americans. They worship from afar. Kids flock to him when he visits a school, because they are less reserved; he says he does not advise them to be runners.
When he had run five minutes Abebe began to lengthen his stride and Niskanen changed gears to stay ahead. Abebe seemed to get stronger by the mile, and though he wore shoes the pounding of his feet was inaudible, as if he were not touching the ground. "Is it not beautiful the way he runs?" asked Niskanen. We were in the hills now, with the sweet smell of eucalyptus grown heavier and the strikingly vivid browns and greens and yellows of the Ethiopian countryside, the round farmhouses and the flat-topped trees you associate with the African landscape. Shepherds, entire families surrounding their flocks, watched stoically as Abebe went by. Eventually we turned back. Abebe ran on alone.
On another day we were invited to Abebe's house for lunch. Niskanen said it was a first for foreign journalists, "a sign he is pleased with you." Abebe's house was also made of mud, packed hard as grout under the corrugated iron roof, but inside there were three rooms comfortably furnished and a television set that has become as important a diversion for Abebe as his scrapbook. Present programming in Addis runs to Huckleberry Hound, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Beverly Hillbillies without subtitles. It is not true, as the Associated Press recently suggested, that Abebe "lives like a king," but by Ethiopian standards he docs not want. "Lieut. Abebe is building a new house, a much better one," said Lieut. Assefa.
Abebe brought out his son, Dawit, who is 4. "Does he not look like Cassius Clay?" asked Abebe. His wife, Abebe explained, had taken their daughter, Tsegie (Rose), 1½, to the country for a visit and would not be back for a week. He showed us a picture of a very pretty oval-faced woman in a white chamma. "We were married when I was 26," Abebe said. "In Ethiopia it is tradition that the mother chooses for you. It is now six years later, and I am still pleased."
There were more trophies and pictures—one of him in his beard—and many things to show, but where were his Olympic gold medals? "If you really want to see them I will show you," said Abebe. He went out of the room, as if to a secret place, and came back with the two gold medals. The ribbons they were tied to were soiled from much handling.
We retired to a small dining room with a single open window. The table was neatly set, with cloth napkins and Western tableware. "But when you eat wat you do not use a fork," said Lieut. Assefa. It is customary in Ethiopia to have servants. Abebe has three. Don Sazima's servants have servants. But Abebe waited on us himself—attentive, eager, quick to fill the smallest vacancy in a plate. The wat, he said, was made by his mother. It was the color and consistency of barbecued beef, quite tasty and at least as hot as Peter Rand had predicted. Trying to pick up the wat with the anjera without soiling your fingers is a social pressure that could crush a confident man, but I accepted a second helping anyway. Photographer Seed said he had already had lunch, thank you, and passed after the first. There was a quick run of Amharic chatter, and then laughter. "Lieut. Abebe said you are like the people of Gondar," said Assefa. "They do not eat, and they say they have already eaten."
Halfway through the meal the cat under my side of the table was joined by another and there was a short encounter, but Abebe quickly broke it up. He did not eat except for a small plate of vegetables. It was his day to fast, he said. As a Coptic Christian he will fast as many as 175 days a year.
That night the wat and anjera tumbled about in my alien stomach, as though in a death struggle, but it was my gluttony at work as much as it was the hot pepper. Toujours perdrix. The next day I checked out of the Ethiopia Hotel, recklessly overtipping the maid who had kept my shoes so well shined and the bellboy who had tended my bags and laundry and, not even bothering to establish a fare, took a taxi to the airport. On the ride I was pestered by a sense of satisfaction I did not appreciate until I remembered something Dr. Guild of Boston had said. While they were in Boston, Abebe and Mamo simply grew on his children. After a few weeks, Dr. Guild said, the children would not go to bed without getting a good-night kiss, and when Abebe and Mamo went back to Ethiopia they cried.
The taxi driver helped me with my bags and invited me to please come to Addis Ababa again. I tipped him. I passed through customs without a hitch, hand-carrying my Galla war shield and my parchment of Sheba's visit to Solomon, and soon settled in my seat on the Ethiopian Airlines jet. I accepted with thanks as the stewardess offered me a mint and some gum for the ascent out of Addis. She smiled sweetly as I opened up a copy of Paris-Match and turned to the inside page where I had secreted a copy of TIME.
Ex-Private Bikila, elegant in the full-dress uniform of a lieutenant as he stands watch over a chained royal lion and the palace pavilion, is proud of his rise from boyhood poverty.
In the early-morning sunlight brightly clad Bikila, who runs up to 20 miles a day, sweeps effortlessly past a farm in the spectacular Ethiopian countryside north of Addis Ababa.
After workout Bikila spars playfully with his Swedish coach, Onni Niskanen. They enjoy something close to a father-son relationship.
Bikila shows his Olympic medals to his 4-year-old son, Dawit. In Abebe's proud opinion Dawit looks like Cassius Clay.