When Olympic distance runner Haile Gebrselassie returned to Ethiopia from the Atlanta Games in 1996 clutching his gold medal from the 10,000 meters, more than a million of his countrymen lined the streets of Addis Ababa. When British film director Leslie Woodhead set out to begin shooting his upcoming documentary of Gebrselassie's life later that same year, he confronted similar evidence of the runner's phenomenal popularity. To prevent crowds from besieging their national hero, Woodhead was forced to keep the 25-year-old star concealed in the back of a blacked-out van until they were ready to film, at which point he would emerge, shoot the scene, and then duck back into the vehicle. "It was very difficult," says Woodhead, recalling the only comparable experience in his 35-year career. "It was like filming Paul McCartney in London in 1965."
The result of Woodhead's resourcefulness is an 83-minute documentary, produced by Disney and titled Endurance, which opens next month in 11 American cities. For years, aficionados have mourned the lack of believable and inspiring running films. (Pre, the 1997 story of American distance legend Steve Prefontaine, was typical for its lack of depth and its use of actors who represent running's ethos with the zest and ‰lan of department-store mannequins.) Endurance may be welcomed as a refreshing break in this trend.
Featuring members of his immediate family, the film offers a vivid account of Gebrselassie's rise from son of an impoverished Ethiopian farmer to world record-holder in the 5,000-meter, 10,000-meter, and two-mile runs — and a man now considered by many to be the greatest distance runner of all time.
As the documentary wends through theaters, its star plans to focus on the world indoor championships in Japan at the end of this month. "I will try to break the records for the 3,000 and 5,000," says Gebrselassie, with businesslike alacrity. "That will be my target for 1999."