Atletu (The Athlete) (Directors: Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew): Perhaps not everyone is as familiar with Abebe Bikila as I am. This remarkable man was the first African athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, and the first person to repeat as marathon champion at consecutive Olympic Games (Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964). This lovingly-made film brings this great athlete some long-overdue attention. Bikila’s life story is even more poignant because of the tragedies that befell him later in his life.
In fact, the bulk of the film takes place on the fateful day in 1969 when, returning to Addis Ababa from a trip to his home village, Bikila’s car went off the road, pinning him underneath. As a result of the accident, he never regained the use of his legs, despite spending months of rehabilitation at the then state-of-the-art facility at Stoke Mandeville, England. It was there that he channelled his fiercely competitive nature into a new sport, archery. Despite having only limited use of his arms, Bikila finished a respectable fourth in a tournament against world-class competition. This tournament organized by the hospital went on to form the basis of the Paralympic movement.
The film’s climax occurs in chilly Norway, where Bikila was invited by the King in 1971 to compete in a unique form of dogsled racing. Accompanied by a guide, Bikila had cross-country ski poles to supplement his team of three sprint dogs. Despite tipping over midway through the race, he recovered enough to beat his opponent. Set to the music of Sigur Rós, this segment is sure to lead to a few wet eyes.
Lakew does a fine job portraying Bikila, despite the lack of physical resemblance, and the liberal use of documentary footage from Bikila’s Olympic victories (as well as from Bud Greenspan’s hard-to-find doc The Ethiopian) make up for the fact that Lakew himself is not a runner. Frankel and Lakew’s film achieves a lot with a very small budget, and I think if this film is marketed to the running community, in the way that Spirit of the Marathon was, it could achieve some modest success. Hopefully more people will discover the courage and remarkable spirit of this man, who faced tragedy as serenely as victory.
I’ve found a short interview with co-director Davey Frankel from the Montreal World Film Festival (where I saw the film), embedded below: