On August 15 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, Ethiopian long distance runner Tirunesh Dibaba won 10,000 metre gold. A week later she won the 5,000 metres, too. Until then no woman had won both races at the same Games, and only one woman had ever run the 10,000 metres faster. Dibaba’s achievement was undoubtedly huge – how many people win one Olympic medal, let alone two? – but her triumph was noteworthy for another reason: the now-26-year-old athlete was born in Bekoji, a rural Ethiopian town from which seven other Olympic medalists have also come running.
“A lot of people say Bekoji’s success is down to genetics or the altitude,” director Jerry Rothwell says, “but that doesn’t explain why the town five miles down the road doesn’t also produce world-class long distance runners!” Instead the reason is the town’s inspirational coaching figure, as Rothwell notes. “You need someone who is able to capitalise on the interest of young runners, and who is able to push that interest in the right direction. The inspirational figure in Bekoji is coach Sentayehu Eshetu, who trained Derartu Tulu and Dibaba, and who for years has worked with young runners.”
“A lot of people say Bekoji’s success is down to genetics or the altitude, but that doesn’t explain why the town five miles down the road doesn’t also produce world-class long distance runners!”
Sentayehu – quietly driven, often very funny – stands proudly at the heart of Rothwell’s Town of Runners, a warm feature documentary that follows two young Bekoji-born runners on the lookout for athletic stardom. Set against a backdrop of technological progression – “When we arrived electricity was sporadic, by the time we finished there was satellite television in every hotel room” – Rothwell reveals the hardship of life in a small Ethiopian town, and the optimism with which its residents seek possible escape.
“Running is a way to a distant life,” he explains. “Bekoji is a very rural town in which most people’s life patterns are pretty established. If you’re a boy you’ll work in agriculture. If you’re a girl you’ll probably get married very young, at 12 or 13-years-old. Athletics offers the chance at a completely different life – the possibility of being on a world stage, but also wealth. That’s primarily what inspires them.”
The potential for cliche looms throughout, but Rothwell’s treatment here is subtle, his methods honest. Neither of the runners are particularly successful, neither fail (in fact the only semblance of failure comes from the film’s narrator, a young shopkeeper named Biruk lacking in athletic talent, but even he seems to have a future now his town is hooked up to the internet). Instead both runners carry on – to clubs in different parts of the country, to athletic meets in Addis Ababa, in one instance back to Bekoji – continuously searching for the path that might lead to better things. Just like everyone else from their town. Just like all of us in fact.
Town of Runners is released on April 20.