On Sunday I saw the documentary “Town of Runners” at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The movie follows two young runners, Hawii and Alemi, two farmers’ kids with a talent for running in rural Ethiopia. The country is a track powerhouse, particularly the town of Bekoji where the movie takes place, producing stars like Derartu Tulu who won the New York City Marathon in 2009 and Kenenisa Bekele who currently holds the 5K and 10K men’s world records.
Like all sports documentaries, there are some tense moments in competition, but the documentary also looks at the friendship between the girls and how their lives are shaped by their sport. Hawii and Alemi are given the opportunity to move away from home and train with newly formed athletic clubs in hopes that they will someday get noticed by one of the major sports organizations and be paid to train for the Olympics and international track events. As one of the girls’ mothers puts it, running or education can elevate them from their lives on the farm. However, this necessitates that the girls move away from home while still teenagers, living in barracks-like situations and bound to their “clubs” by contracts from which they can be let go at any time — making adult decisions way before adulthood.
We all struggle against the limitations of our situations in some way. We all have to balance our health against the rest of our lives. But it’s a privilege to do so for fun, knowing that it’s just a hobby. Despite all the new opportunities that the professional sports machine in Ethiopia opens up for them, I can’t imagine the pressure these young runners are under to perform.
Read more about the movie and Bekoji’s running culture here.