The fascinating story of Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila has all the potential to become one of those great sports documentaries in the tradition of Senna and Fire in Babylon, with crossover appeal to those who can't stand sport.
Attracting international attention at the 1960 Rome Olympics for his barefoot running style, this unknown outsider became the first African athlete to win a gold medal. His victory in Italy was particularly sweet, since Bikila's family had fled for the mountains after Mussolini invaded their country back in 1935. He went on to bag a second gold at Tokyo four years later and wound up winning 12 of the 15 marathons in which he competed. Tragedy struck in 1969 when a car accident left him a paraplegic. But his competitive spirit remained undimmed. While receiving treatment in Britain's Stoke Mandeville hospital, Bikila took part in archery contests. Incredibly, he later went on to win a gold medal in a cross-country sledging competition in Norway. But complications arising from the accident were to claim his life just three years later, at the age of 41.
How could you go wrong with a story like that? Co-directors Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew manage to botch it by opting for a clumsy, awkwardly constructed drama-documentary approach.
On the plus side, the Ethiopian landscape is beautifully photographed and multi-tasking Lakew proves quite charismatic in the role of Bikila. But he has only himself to blame for the stilted expository dialogue, since he wrote it. To make matters worse, Dag Malmberg, who plays Bikila's Swedish-born coach, struggles with his English, while the runner's would-be meaningful encounters with a priest and a blind horse (no, really) seem forced. Even more bizarrely, Frankel and Lakew opt for an occasionally confusing non-chronological approach that robs the story of momentum. Their film only comes to life in the archive footage of the real Abebe Bikila running towards his remarkable victories.