As we’ve learned from this year’s Olympic Games, some of the best athletes in the world come from developing nations. These athletes, who may not have had the same training opportunities and resources as their Western counterparts, have jumped over some incredible social, economic and political hurdles to become the champions they are today.
One can’t help but wonder: What extraordinary circumstances help athletes from poor countries get to the top? “Town of Runners,” a documentary film released earlier this year, provides some insight. It follows the remarkable story of three young runners from the rural town of Bekoji, Ethiopia, in their race to become the world’s next internationally recognized athletes.
I had a chance to speak with Jerry Rothwell, one of the directors of “Town of Runners,” over the phone last week. The British filmmaker – whose work includes award-winning films “Donor Unknown,” “Heavy Load,” and “Deep Water,” – was deeply fascinated by Bekoji, a town of 16,000 people, because it is notorious for producing some of the world’s greatest distance athletes. “People are passionate about running here, and know that success in the sport will transform their life,” said Jerry.
In fact, runners from Bekoji have won a total of nine Olympic gold medals; broken ten world records; and won 32 world championships.
Jerry spent part of his childhood in Kenya, where runners were viewed and treated as superheroes. So, getting to spend time with Hawii, Alemi and Biruk, the young athletes featured in the film, was quite the thrill. He found that the runners were internally motivated with a hunger to win.
Jerry credits the success of Bekoji’s runners to a few things. First and foremost, Coach Sentayehu Eshetu is at the heart of it all. The coach of several internationally recognized runners, Coach Sentayehu inspires and grows these young people in the town to become amazing athletes. The temperate climate of the village, being 9,200 feet above sea level doesn’t hurt either. The town also has exceptional role models to look up to, including runners Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele and Derartu Tulu. The young people in Bekoji want to be just as successful as these famous athletes.
But there’s also another part of the story that we can’t ignore: being good at running can ultimately be the ticket to a better life. Not only does a successful running career affect the lives of individuals, but it brings prestige and hope to the country. The future is planned out for most people in this town — boys work in agriculture while girls marry at a young age. Running, however, has the power to change this.
In addition to sharing the stories of these three amazing runners, Jerry hopes that “Town of Runners” will portray Africa in a positive light, and show people the progress being made on the continent. “I’m hoping to try and shift the negative perspective of famine and poverty in Ethiopia, and show people the hope found through the sport of running here,” said Jerry.
“Directing this film was an enormous privilege as I was able to go into people’s lives and actually go on their journey with them,” he said.
The filmmakers hope that by creating this film, they can develop opportunities for the young people of Bekoji. To find more information on the outreach programs, click here. To view the locations of current screenings, click here.