Onni Niskanen The Trainer and Coach

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(piciture: Tim Judahs book and Onnis stopwatch)

(From Swedish Newspaper 1948)

Ethiopia to get into the Olympics – Onni Niskanen gives promises

“This year we were too late to participate in the Olympic Games” says Captain Onni Niskanen, who is joining us as the official representative for the Sports Federation in Addis Ababa. He has worked there, as a sports instructor and adviser, for two years and has had the contract extended for two more.

“I will inquire with the Olympics ‘bigwigs’ and, as soon as I get back home, I will start putting together an Ethiopian Olympics committee so that we can take part in Helsinki 1952.

So far, I have worked solely in Addis Ababa, but in the future, my work field will be extended to include the countryside, where the great talents are and the human material is especially good. That is not an exaggeration, with the barefoot boys being able to run for days in all types of terrain. As a matter of course, they play football barefoot as well. It only just happens that they bind up their ankles”, Niskanen concludes.

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Below is part of an article published in the Swedish edition of Runner’s World No. 11, 2008, and is reproduced here with permission from the author.

Author: Ulf Wickbom

It all started at 2.000 metres altitude, in Ethiopia. That is where the foundation for the dominance in long distance running was laid. However, the Swede Onni Niskanen was also in this picture. He raised the first talents to become international stars. Abebe Bikila had a training based on Niskanen’s experience from Duvbo IK, GIH (The Swedish University for Gym Teachers) and Vålådalen. The Swedish broad athletics games were the model used when Niskanen organised the schools sports programmes and the Governmental activities in Ethiopia.

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This is the story how Ethiopia became so dominante in longdistance running in the world and still is. I wonder if there are any trainers and coatches that are so successfull as Onni was?

Photo Album

Onnis album

1936

Britta Björk and Onni Niskanen 1936

Mary Onni 23.9 1943

Mary and Onni 23/9 1943

Mexico Olympic Games 1968

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Mexico 1968

Onni Niskanen about the 10,000 metre final: Mamo Wolde was in good form…It was agreed that he should stay in the lead group until 20 laps were done and then he was to give it his all. Everything went according to plan and then when there were five laps to go he speeded up. The other good runners were immediately left behind. Only Naftali Temu from Kenya speeded up all he could.

These two, Mamo about 25 metres ahed, kept up the same tough pace for the remaining laps. Temu got closer and closer. When the bell rang for the last lap Mamo went up to his maximum speed, and so did Temu. One hundred metres before the goal Temu was only a few metres behind. Both gave all they had, Temu just a few steps behind Mamo.

The audience was ecstatic to see such a finale to the 10,000 metres race. Temu got closer, centimetre by centimetre and just before passing the goal he passed Mamo by a few centimetres.

Onni Niskanen about the marathon race: All three Ethiopians took it easy in the beginning, but after five kilometres Abebe was in the lead group. Mamo was slightly behind with Merawi Gebru, the third Ethiopian. Ten kilometres passed with Abebe still in the lead group. At 15 kilometres he had fallen back a little, I saw he was in pain due to his leg, and I advised him to withdraw, which he did after a few kilometres.

Mamo Wolde, who had been lying in the back until now, advanced slowly towards the lead.
At 25 kilometres he was in third place with Temu from Kenya in the lead. Mamo took the lead and gradually left the others behind, securing himself the Olympic gold medal.

Mamo Wolde and Onni Niskanen

Tokyo Olympic games 1964 – The Emperor of the Road

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Abebe Bikila and Onni Niskanen

From Tim Judhas book Bikila Ethiopia´s Barefoot Olympian: “Bikila was hit with appendicitis on 16th September wich was 15 days before the team was due to set off for Tokyo and 40 days before the marathon itself. Bikila began to feel stabbing pains in his stomach while training in Debre Zeit. He was immediately rushed to Addis Ababa´s Haile Selassie Hospital.

There a German doctor, who was noted for treating the Ethiopian athlets for free, confirmed that he was suffering from an appendicitis. In consultation with Yidnekatchew and Niskanen, a midnight decision was taken that Bikila had to be operated on immediately.”

Onni Niskanen: ” Abebe Bikila was positive and the smile and hearty handshake he gave me just after the operation meant I could return to coaching the others in Debre Zeit with a calm heart.
I knew he would be at the marathon start if no post-operative complications arose. Everything went well, and after a few days when I went to see him, he was up and walking around the hospital which he left after a week…There was no question of him training before leaving for Japan. Only walks and careful gymnastics. After arriving in Tokyo we had three weeks until the marathon.”

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In Tokyo 1964 Abebe Bikila won his second gold with a new world best time of 2 hours 12 minutes 11.2 seconds. He was the first person ever to win two marathon gold medals. He had made Olympic history – again.

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Tokyo 1964

26. Abebe Bikila, Mamo Wolde and Onni Niskanen pose for the camera. Tokyo 1964. (Niskanen's own photo album)with_umbrella_tokyo
Wami Birato, Abebe Bikila, Onni Niskanen

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From Tim Judahs book Bikila Ethiopia´s Barefoot Olympian: “Bikila´s return to Addis Ababa was no less triumphant than the one that had taken place four years before. Tens of thousands turned out to cheer him on his victorious ride into the city. He waved with both hands, shook hands with many in the crowd and received innumerable bouquets of flowers. This time a lorry had been adepted so that the garlanded Bikila emerged from out of a large, painted globe, a map of Africa to the fore. The front of the lorry was painted with two flaming Olympic torches and the center was the coat of arms of the Imperial Bodyguard.

As in 1960, he was driven straight to the royal palace. Here Haile Selassie pinned on him the Order of Menelik II. He promoted him to lieutenant, awarded him his own private Volkswagen and house and said that the success he had scored had been due to the “help of the Almighty.” He also praised Mamo Wolde.

Following the ceremony, there was a reception given by the chief of the Imperial Bodyguard. The newspapers talked of the relief felt all over the contry that Bikila had won the second time around and the Ethiopian Herald opined that: “There are hundreds of Abebes in Ethiopia whose potential abilities either remain undiscovered or overlooked.” .”

Ethiopian Highland Rally 1965-1974

Onni Niskanen was one of the founders and organizer of the Ethiopian High-
Land Rally, which was organized during ten years and it
also became an international competition.

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Onni´s Photo album

Onnis album

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The Dream Of Awassa

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!971 when we were in Ethiopia Onni took us to Awassa. He had bought about 8000 square meters of land there that went down the whole way to the water. What a loveley place!
Onni had together with his brothers Arne and Erik decided to build a three family house there were they all could live together when they got older.
My father, Erik, made a drawing for the main house and both of my parents where quite exciting about moving to Ethiopia and so were Arne and his wife Karin too.

One year later they started to build a guest house, drilled a well and a septic tank and put up fence around the whole land.
There was also a cave on the sloop that they planned to make a wine cellar of.

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I can still remember how my mother and father planned and talked about this and how much it meant for them to move to Ethiopia and live together there with Onni, Arne and Karin.
1972 went my parents to Ethiopia again to plan everything together with Onni, this was their dream…

Then come the revolution and everything was suddenly very insecure and nobody knew what would happen.
The military even come to Onni because they believed that he had used the cave as a hidding-place for weapons. I think Onni was quite surprised of that himself, he that only cared about people and not about politics at all. The dream was gone and it all come to nothing.