Mention barefoot running and probably the first runner that would come to mind is the Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila. He is known primarily for winning the 1960 Summer Olympics marathon barefoot.
I learned of Abebe Bikila when I was in high school, not from some history course, but from reading William Goldman’s book Marathon Man. In the book, the protagonist and aspiring marathon runner Babe Levy idolized Abebe Bikila and marveled on how Bikila was able to conquer the marathon barefoot. Levy gets involved with some government agency and some Nazis and eventually gets harrowingly tortured by some Nazi dentist. He escapes and eludes the captors by running barefoot, clad only in his pajamas.
And yes it was made into a classic movie in 1976 with Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier, with the now legendary dialogue of “Is it safe?”
What’s interesting about the Abebe Bikila story was that he wasn’t even supposed to be in the Olympics. He was only added in the Ethiopian roster in last-minute as a replacement for Wami Biratu, who had broken his ankle in a soccer match. And Bikila didn’t even plan to run barefoot. He only ran barefoot because the shoes supplied by Adidas didn’t fit properly! After winning the marathon, he was asked why he had run barefoot and Bikila answered: “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”