With Olympic fever on the verge of breaking out, it is of little surprise that our cinemas are being bombarded with all manner of inspirational sports stories. After the overly-insistent approach of the home-grown flag-waving exercise Fast Girls, The Athlete instead endeavours to tell a more heartfelt and universal story, albeit with results that only sometimes feel adequately nourishing.
The first time we see Abebe Bikila (Rasselas Lakew), it is 1969 and he is readying himself for an epic three-year journey. Bikila is unquestionably best known for his barefoot run during the 1960 Rome Olympics, in which he collected Gold – and the first medal for a black athlete - in the marathon. Back in ’69, he is prepping for one final race at the 1972 Munich Olympics, while directors Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew transport us back to his beginnings, observing the ups and downs that brought him to both this point and beyond then it.
Frankel and Lakew’s seamless intercutting between archival footage and the feature narrative is itself rather good, even if the sparely-employed documentary material winds up much more interesting than the dramatic form that most of the film is devoted to. Most memorable is a savvy sequence later on, juxtaposing Abebe’s more beleaguered fall from fame with the tremendous physical feats of his rise to prominence.
However, overuse of obvious voiceover narration ties all the meaning together rather lazily, suffocating the viewer. While Bikila no doubt lived a fascinating life, this treatment reduces it to a rote coming-of-age inspirational story; we see him growing up away from his parents, cut against his preparations for Munich, culminating in a road trip involving encounters with a priest, a blind horse, disrespectful bar patrons and finally, his own brush with mortality.
The quasi-philosophical regard to so much here regrettably proves more disposably flowery than thoughtful, such as when Abebe’s friend Onni (Dag Malmberg) declares at one point – with an impressive poker face – that “You can tell everything about a man from how he runs”. Overall there feels like a lack of journalistic distance and a distinct naivety to things, chiefly the apparent “outrage” that Ethiopia’s sporting federation dared to focus their efforts on younger, fitter athletes than Bikila. Forced dialogue meanwhile shoves Abebe’s existential dilemma – of caring for his family as well as his physical crusade – down our throats.
The inevitability of his life – that a car crash left him paralysed from the waist-down – is the sort of setback that, in a film like this, typically feels contrived, as it would if it were not, in fact, a slice of real life. Rather, it serves as a potent way in which to explore the idea of adaptation, while retaining the sad honesty of Bikila’s situation, that many who supported him in his successes are nowhere to be seen in his anguish.
The third act, however, diverts sharply, with poor storytelling placing Abebe in another place altogether with very little explanation. The palpable humanist themes present – about personal meaning, not giving up, and finding victories in unexpected places – are undermined by the rickety inconsistency of the storytelling. If told with more conviction, these sentiments can be profound, but here, they have the feel of a pandering TV movie-of-the-week.
Despite being well-intentioned and featuring a more-than-worthy subject, the perceived lack of editorial distance makes it feel too often like a hagiography. The Athlete is effective at studying a physical specimen, but as an examination of a man in terms of what he means to his family and his country, the context is fatally scarce.
The Athlete is on limited release from Friday.