Bikila, who had served as a member of Emperor Haile Selassie's imperial bodyguard in Addis Ababa, trained extensively for the previous nine years at altitude.
In Rome he left the world's best marathon runners gasping in his wake as he became the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal and paved the way for generations of African long-distance dominance.
His time of two hours 15 minutes 16.2 seconds was just under the previous world best and lopped nearly eight minutes off Emil Zatopek's Olympic record.
Bikila was born on August 7, 1932, the same day as the Los Angeles Olympics marathon, in the town of Jato, about 130 kms from Addis Ababa.
He attracted national attention in 1956 when he took part in the national armed forces championships, upstaging the then Ethiopian running hero Wami Biratu who held the national 5,000 and 10,000 records. Both marks were to fall to Bikila.
Bikila was coached by Swede Onni Niskanen who allowed his protege to run barefoot after deciding that he ran faster without running shoes.
The pair determined that Bikila should make his decisive move in Rome one kilometre from the finish of the 42.195 kms race near the obelisk of Axum which had been stolen from Ethiopia by Italian troops.
His victory came at the Arch of Constantine where Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had paraded with his troops in 1935 before they invaded Ethiopia and conquered Addis Ababa.
Bekele repeated his triumph at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, running this time in shoes.
Despite an appendectomy only 40 days before the race, he finished more than four minutes ahead of his nearest rivals and delighted the crowd in the stadium when he indulged in stretching exercises as he waited for the runners-up.
A third gold medal seemed in reach at the 1968 Mexico City Games but he was forced to drop out after running with a hairline fracture in his right foot. The title went to another Ethiopian, Mamo Wolde, confirming the emergence of Africa's oldest independent country as a world power in distance running.
Only the Emperor enjoyed greater stature than Bikila, who was cheered when he walked the streets. But his life was to be cut short after he was crippled in a car accident in 1969.
Confined to a wheelchair, Bikila died in 1973 of a brain haemorrhage. He remained as stoic in adversity as he had been modest in victory.
"Men of success meet with tragedy," Bikila said. "I was overjoyed when I won the marathon twice.
"But I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have no choice."