In Town of Runners, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, director Jerry Rothwell travels to Bekoji, Ethiopia—a hotbed of world-class long-distance runners such as Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele. How can so many top runners hail from one town, he wonders. Part of the credit goes to P.E. teacher-turned-running coach Sentayehu Eshetu, but it’s also the proximity to success: In a town as small as Bekoji, it’s easy to be one friend or family member removed from a childhood running idol. Rothwell explores the Bekoji phenomenon by following the paths of two aspiring runners. He spoke with Outside about the documentary, which was four years in the making.
What inspired you to direct Town of Runners?
The idea for the film came from the producer, Dan Demissie, who was doing a producing course at the film school where my production company, Met Film, is based. Dan comes from an Ethiopian family and was interested in doing a documentary about Ethiopian running. For me it was interesting because I’d grown up for some of my childhood in Kenya, so the Kenyan runners of the ’70s were my childhood heroes. I also had a daughter who was a really enthusiastic runner, so a combination of those things made it a subject I was really interested in exploring.
You started shooting during the Beijing Olympics, when two Bekoji runners won four gold medals. Can you describe the atmosphere at the time? Was everyone glued to the television?
We had a tiny bit of money to do our first bit of filming in Bekoji and we decided a good time to go would be during the Beijing Olympics, because we knew their runners would be running. So we gathered in what was at the time the only bar that really had satellite TV, and a lot of the village was gathered in that bar. Amazingly, [Bekoji natives Tirunesh] Dibaba and [Kenenisa] Bekele won two gold medals each. It was a sort of clean sweep of the long-distance track events, so there was an incredible sort of Olympics fever in the town. It was great because that scene starts the film and I think what it does is show the impact of those role models on the generation of young people from that town who’ve taken up running and see it as a way to a different life.
How did you first hear about Coach Sentayehu?
We were looking at making a film about running in the region, broadly, and as we did that research we realized that there was a lot happening in Bekoji. And when you looked into why that was happening, it came down to the figure of the town, Coach Sentayehu Eshetu, who was this genial man who’s been there for 30 years. He started off as a P.E. teacher and then when one of the kids who he’d initially trained at school, Derartu Tulu, became the first sub-Saharan African Olympic champion, he kind of realized that he could develop many more world-class athletes in Bekoji. And Durartu’s achievements really kind of kicked off what’s been 20 years of training people in that town.
He’s now trained a number of world-class runners in their early stages. Why do you think he has such a good track record?
I think he’s someone who’s able to build on the interest that comes from the role models, and someone who’s able to be rigorous about the way he trains people. He’s got a very strong work ethic, and that work ethic exists in Ethiopian society as a whole. In my experience [Ethiopians] believe you get places by working hard. I think that the fact that he’s able to build on those ambitions is what makes the town so successful. In another town down the road there isn’t the same kind of success, even though there’s the same environmental factors—high altitude and the same genetic pool. But there’s not a Coach Sentayehu.
It’s kind of amazing that in Bekoji, you could be one degree of separation from the Olympic athlete you idolize. Success seems that much more tangible.
Yes, exactly. I think they can sort of see how someone got to where they got to. They don’t only see the winning Olympic moment. They understand that that was Tirunesh down the road and that’s her mom who they see in the market every day. It becomes clear how they can progress from one place to another.
What are the running conditions like in Bekoji? Is there anything distinct about the environment that makes it ideal for training?
I think it’s an ideal place to train because there’s combinations of different terrains. There are steep hills that are ideally suited to doing repeated hill runs. There’s flat roads and a track. And, as everyone in Bekoji says, the air is good, I think by which they mean it’s clean, not polluted. It’s at a high altitude and the weather is cool. It’s the opposite of how one imagines Ethiopia as an arid place—it’s incredibly fertile and green and actually quite cold.
Many of the runners in Bekoji don’t wear shoes. Is that because they can’t afford them? I know in America, some people think running barefoot is better for you.
Yeah, people are running without shoes because trainers in Ethiopia are the same cost as trainers in the U.S. or the U.K. But obviously if you’ve got a wage that’s under a dollar a day, it’s gonna take a very long time to save up for a pair of trainers. So they tend to use trainers well past their sell-by date. Every time we went, we took secondhand trainers out—occasionally new trainers where we managed to get a sponsor. And those were really welcome. Trainers are kind of prized possessions there. For those that are into barefoot running today in the States, there is an issue in the sense that trainers do change your running style and do encourage you to sort of run on your heels—and are therefore even more prone to injury. And actually when you look at the running style of the girls, it’s a running style built on barefoot running.
Running is a hobby for most people in the U.S., a way to keep fit. But in Bekoji it means more. What would you say running means to the youth in Bekoji?
There’s a comment from Biruk, the boy who narrates the film, where he says running is a kind of work. And I think that is very much how it’s experienced. This is a job and you’re doing it because it’s potentially a way of earning money and of contributing to your family. I think later on young people who run gradually get to a point where they love running, but I think running is definitely seen as a route to a different life. I think running opens up a very different horizon.
So you can see why they need running clubs for support.
That’s right. The opportunity that comes up in the film for two of the girls to run in a club is an incredible opportunity because the club will look after accommodations, give them food and give them a very basic sort of subsistence wage. Once they’ve joined a club, that’s success, because they’re able to earn a living in athletics.
These clubs get financial support from the towns they’re located in. How does that work, exactly? Is it a required tax, or is it by donation?
Most of the clubs are set up by the National Athletics Federation. But in the film, the Oromia region where Bekoji is, and where the girls are based, decided to set up 18 new clubs for young people. Those clubs had some capital investment but they basically needed the support of the town in order to continue, and in the film one of the clubs doesn’t have that community support. The other is a much better-off town with a flower industry that is willing to support the club, so I suppose it’s a lesson in how the support of a community affects sport.
What is a typical path for runners who make it to Olympic level?
If an athlete joins one of the major clubs in Addis Ababa, then they’re well on their way to make a career in running. But obviously there’s running for the national team, and there are other opportunities for them to earn a living. There’s international road races and marathons and half-marathons. Ethiopian runners have obviously changed nationality and gone to run for Bahrain and Turkey and even the States.
There are so many bureaucratic snafus, like when Hawii comes in fifth but they almost give it to another girl whose name begins with H. Or when Hawii can’t go to school in the new town because her name was misspelled on her transfer paper. Is this disorganization, or is there any corruption at work?
In all athletics everywhere there’s gamesmanship, and I think that plays out in a particular way in Ethiopia due to a lack of resources and a lack of easy recordkeeping. For example, in the rural areas it’s not easy to track anyone’s birthdate, so there aren’t necessarily birth certificates like there would be in the U.S. or the U.K. So the runner’s age is not easy to pin down, which means different teams will put in runners who are perhaps older than the age group that they’re running in. So yeah, I think it’s a combination of the situation in the country specifically and the lack of resources. And I guess with the competitiveness of athletics, it’s really important for the coaches of the regional team that the regional team does well, or else they’d be out of a job.
Is anyone coming up for the summer Olympics in London?
Not for the Olympics, but we’ve been trying to get the coach and girls over here to form bonds with British athletics clubs with the idea that those clubs might then help support athletics infrastructure in Bekoji in the future.
And you’re not a runner yourself?
No, not at all. My daughter got very inspired by Kelly Holmes in 2004, winning the double 800 and 1500 meters, and I was interested how someone who came from such an unathletic family picked up the sport. And in Bekoji it was the same thing: Was it that these kids had seen their neighbors succeed and that inspiration was enough to sort of carry them through all of the hardships of training? I think it is that.