Friday, April 18, 2014

Abebe Bikila: The Athlete movie

Today was the Friday before the Boston Marathon and as a fifth grade teacher that means I introduce my class to running and the great Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie by showing the Disney biopic on his life, Endurance. I enjoy the running scenes in the movie, the fact that Haile acts as himself, and the scenes of rural everyday farm life in Ethiopia. My students always enjoy the movie and (I hope) my commentary throughout it about runners like Abebe Bikila, Miruts Yifter, and Paul Tergat. They also enjoy knowing that I went to Africa in 2011 and will be returning to Kenya this summer. They do have a hard time realizing that the movie depicts living people and a lifestyle unlike their own. Every year, kids ask if the people in the movie are still alive, and I have to tell them that they are and that they are younger than me.

I had lost my digital copy of the movie (made from my VHS copy) so I had to order a new copy from Amazon in order to show it today. While doing so, I noticed some of the other running movies that Amazon offered and one of the was called The Athlete about the life of Abebe Bikila, the first black African to win a gold medal in the Olympics and the catalyst for the current onslaught of Ethiopian and African running prowess throughout the world today.

I knew all about Abebe's barefoot gold medal run in the 1960 Rome Olympics and his repeat gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. I also was familiar with the car crash that left him paralyzed, the return at the 1972 Olympics to be honored and then his sudden death. I always had the sense of a sadness around Abebe Bikila and that a depression might have been part of his death.

I decided to watch the movie tonight since it was free for Amazon Prime members. It made liberal use of Bud Greenspan video from the 1960 Olympics as well as video from the 1964 Olympics probably from the Tokyo Olympiad (The Criterion Collection) film. The Ethiopian actors seemed realistic and the conversations were a mix of English and subtitles. It seemed a lot of the first half of the film revolved around Abebe's blue Volkswagen Beetle as the story slowly developed. I got the sense from watching the actor's portrayals a reaffirmation about Abebe's serious nature as well as a distance from his family and many of his countrymen during the political changes in his country.  Abebe desired to make a comeback at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Unfortunately, the accident changed his goals. I expected the film to show a slow decline until his death and that is where I ended up pleasantly surprised. Abebe participated in paralegic sports competitions: first in archery and later in dogsled racing. Who knew? The reception back in Addis Ababa after his dogsled racing victory was especially poignant. Even the commentary at the end of the film was powerful.

I enjoyed this movie, which would really be interesting for fans of running and its history as well as those who would enjoy viewing wonderful scenes shot in Africa.

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