directed by Bud Greenspan
& Leslie Woodhead
(Walt Disney/Buena Vista, 1998)

This is exactly the movie that would have been my favorite when I was a fifth-grader convinced I would be an Olympian.

Endurance gives me a pretty good idea why I am not an Olympian. And thank heavens I overlooked my fear that Walt Disney Productions would Disney-fy the life of a great athlete into something too simplistic and treacly.

Instead, they've put together a beautifully filmed re-creation/documentary about Haile Gebrsellasie, the talented and determined athlete Runner's World magazine deems the best long-distance runner ever.

Two years in the making, Endurance uses a flashback style and very little dialogue, especially in the first hour, to follow young Haile (Yonas Zergaw) as he grows up in a farming family of 10 children in Arssi, Ethiopia. Six miles to school daily. Three miles every day to fetch water. A one-room takul to house everyone. Scooping up animal dung in bare hands to dry for fuel. An early death for his mother. Plowing with oxen and smacks from his father for not working fast enough.

All of Endurance was filmed on location -- check out the opening sequence of Gebrsellasie running cross-country, several minutes long and a single take -- and, with some members of Gebrsellasie's extended family, it has an immediacy not found with many recreations.

Most of it simply rides the undertow of a score by John Powell and music producer Hans Zimmer. The village prays for peace in their war-torn country, for a successful harvest. The parents sacrifice to send their children to school, hoping they'll turn that education into an office job.

But that's not what Haile wants. Smuggling flashlight batteries and his father's radio, he runs out into the fields so he can listen to his hero: fellow Ethiopian Miruts Yifter, winning the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at the 1980 Olympics.

Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia's surprise, barefoot marathon winner at the Rome Olympics, also is Haile's hero. And so, against his father's wishes, Haile leaves home when he's old enough and heads to Addis Ababa to train.

At this point, Haile Gebrsellasie begins to play himself in his life story, joined by his father and future wife. And much of it switches to Atlanta Olympics footage, directed by Bud Greenspan, as Gebrsellasie prepares to prove a lifetime of dedication can pay off against the odds.

Ethiopia would go on to win four golds in Atlanta, all in long-distance running. You may already know of Gebrsellasie's 10,000-meter victory against rival Paul Tergat of Kenya, but that doesn't lessen the suspense as the powerhouse Kenyans take to the track, a trio of long-limbed, sleek running power. And, as Gebrsellasie starts from the second row, and slowly, painfully inches his way toward the front of the pack, to his astonishing bell-lap kick, it's accompanied only by the sound of a runner's labored breathing and the crowd's cheers.

Here's a definition of Gebrsellasie's resilience: 99th place in his first marathon. Greeted by a million Ethiopians upon his triumphant return from Atlanta.

That's Endurance.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 25 August 2001

Buy it from Amazon.com.