Today: February 28, 2024


This summer’s Olympic Games in London will be missing Haile Gebrselassie’s familiar face, after he failed to make both the Marathon and 10,000m teams for his native Ethiopia.

summer’s Olympic Games in London will be missing Haile Gebrselassie’s familiar face, after he failed to make both
the Marathon and 10,000m teams for his native Ethiopia.

But the release on DVD of Leslie Woodhead‘s 1999 documentary Endurance
means that Haile can still be on our screens.

tells the early story of the man commonly described as the ‘greatest distance
runner of all time’. Young Haile (played by Haile’s cousin, Yonas Zergaw)
lives in rural Ethiopia, son of a farmer, and with nine siblings. His parents’
value education, so Haile goes to school everyday, then quickly returns home to
work on the farm. The school, however, is 6 miles away and with no other form
of transport available, the young Haile would run – sprint, by the look of this
– both ways, barefoot. As Haile gets older (and comes to be played by Haile
himself), his running habit becomes less a matter of commute, and more a
pursuit of a dream. After hearing the victory of Ethiopian runner Miruts
in the 10,000 meter race at the Moscow Olympics on an old transistor
radio, Haile comes to see, it would seem, running as a potential career. He
moves to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to train, and despite finishing 99th
in his first marathon, he continues to put in the long hours, and the film ends
with Haile’s great victory at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

The film is somewhat hard to
categorise. It is not a documentary per se: it is scripted and actors play some
characters. But it is too loosely put together to be really considered a
narrative film. It lacks any sort of voice-over providing a narrative structure
or even much dialogue. Rather, Woodhead has opted to break up scenes with title
cards, providing the barest possible information to keep the audience
comprehending. It’s more about giving snapshots of his early life and then his
punishing training regime that really attempting to explain the great man.

It is not a great film. Shots of Haile
running are wonderful of course, his grace and persistence spell-binding, but
one doesn’t end the film understanding exactly how he went from finishing 99th
in his first marathon to breaking records in numerous distances and winning
just about everything possible. All we get is a title card that says ‘two years
hard work.’ The director’s lack of vision should not, however, distract us from
the extraordinary nature of Haile’s accomplishments. His achievements are too numerous
to record here, and they are thrown into an even sharper light with the insight
the film gives us into Haile’s early years. Haile shall be missed from the
London Olympics, but his accomplishments will certainly not be forgotten.

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