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On this image taken in the middle of the race, Abebe Bikila is the only one to look at the camera, as if the photographer's eyes would suddenly reveal his presence. In front of him, Radi, the Moroccan athlete that Nikinsen identified as his main rival. Wikicommons

On September 10, 1960, a 28-year-old Ethiopian won the Olympic marathon in Rome, becoming the first African to win the gold medal in this discipline. Sylvain Coher pays homage to him in a light stride novel, to be read in 2 hours 15 minutes and 16 seconds.

It is almost a coincidence that Negee Abebe Bikila's soldier, the " growing flower " in Amharic, is present that evening on the starting line. It took Wami Biratu's injury to join the twelve members of the Abyssinian delegation on a trip to the lands of the former Italian occupier.

Unknown, he is given among the favorites only by the two journalists who live in the same hotel as him, on the basis of impressive performances that he would have made in Debre Zeit, near Addis Ababa, where Major Niskanen, his Swedish coach has reconstructed the course of the Roman course, explaining to the young prodigy the places where, according to him, he should be cautious and where he could create surprise.

Africa, year zero

The rest of the press ignores it altogether. This is a chance, explains him in essence Niskanen, who invites him to take the lead of the race as late as possible, on via San Gregorio, which connects the former Ministry of Italian Africa to the Arc de Constantine.

These are two places with a high symbolic load. In front of the first, stands the Aksum obelisk, stolen by the Italians from the Ethiopians during their brief and bloody colonial conquest. Benito Mussolini launched his war speech in 1937 against the armies of the Negus.

Add to this that in 1960, a large part of Africa regained its independence, until Somalia, the last Italian colony, returned to Rome under mandate for ten years.

On his hand, Abebe Bikila wrote the numbers of the bibs of his main rivals. There is no number 185 among them, which he exceeds in the last five kilometers, before his name is shouted by the crowd. The Moroccan Radi, one of the favorites of the marathon, has indeed kept the bib of his previous competition, the 10,000 meters, ran two days earlier.

The thoughts of the athlete

From his first participation, Abebe Bikila broke the Olympic record, before beating the world record at the Tokyo Games, four years later. Before his victory, journalists and spectators are amazed to discover that, for convenience, the young man runs without shoes. The scene of his arrival, lit by a torchlight in the Roman night by Italian soldiers, immediately becomes a myth.

This is the gesture that Sylvain Coher chooses to tell, by marrying the point of view of the athlete. If you let yourself be caught up in the rhythm, which invites you to hold your breath on the succession of sentences to share the drunkenness of the runner, the thoughts of Bikila, as imagined by the author, require the reader a strong support at the literary convention.

Sometimes didascalical or anachronistic by the vocabulary used, they combine at the expense of credibility the world of a writer fascinated by the ancient wonders of Rome and that of the marathoner, who seems a man without a past. The systematic translation of place names in French, a convention passed from use, also takes us a little bit off the set.

A political fable

Anyway, the writer manages to tell these 42 kilometers and 195 meters as the epic often mentioned, but to which no one before him had literally paid homage. In 2009, there was a film by Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew, The Athlete , that almost dream-fiction and archive footage. In 1987, Luigi Comencini also paid tribute to Abebe Bikila by making him the idol of Mimì, the young runner of A child of Calabria .

Towards the end of the 1960s, Abebe Bikila's career collapsed. Injured, he can not finish the Mexico City marathon in 1968, leaving the victory to a compatriot. The reign of Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes is now a reality. The following year, a car accident leaves him paralyzed. He began a brief Paralympic career before a stroke, which resulted from his injuries, won him in 1973, at the age of 41.

Of the athletes who have built the Olympic legend, in a heroic epoch of which he is perhaps one of the last representatives, Abebe Bikila is with Jesse Owens the one whose victory immediately took on such a political meaning. It took an army of half a million men to march on Ethiopia, one still likes to repeat, but only one soldier was enough to walk on Rome.

► Sylvain Coher, Defeat in Rome , Actes Sud, September 2019. € 18.50.