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‘The Athlete’ tells story of an African champion

Jacquinn Williams | 7/27/2011, 11:06 a.m.
“The Athlete” kicks off the 13th Roxbury International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Philipp Pfeiffer) Jacquinn...
“The Athlete” kicks off the 13th Roxbury International Film Festival. Philipp Pfeiffer

“The Athlete” — a documentary about Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila — kicks off the 13th annual Roxbury International Film Festival.

A story of personal triumph and great loss, the film by Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew details Bikila’s life after a car accident rendered his legs useless.

 Bikila was born in 1932 in a town called Jato outside of Addis Ababa.  According to Runnerspace.com, Bikila was a shepherd who later worked in the Imperial Guard. One day, he saw a group of Ethiopian athletes and wanted to know who they were. He was told the athletes were representing Ethiopia in the Melbourne Olympics. Looking at the uniformed group with names written on the back of their shirts, Bikila decided he wanted to be one of them.

 In the mid 1950s he started participating in the national armed forces championship races. Bikila easily won his first major race and later on went to break the 5,000 and 10,000-meter records held by the reigning champion Wami Biratu.

Less than five years after his foray into running, Bikila qualified for the Olympics.

In the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the virtually unknown runner took home the gold medal.  He set a world record and became the first African to win first place. Three years later, he came to Boston to compete in the Boston Marathon but came in fifth place.

Despite his loss in Boston, Bikila continued to train and headed to the Olympics in 1964.  Wearing clean white Pumas only six weeks after undergoing surgery for appendicitis, Bikila took home the gold again. He was the first person to snag two gold medals in a row at the Olympics.

 The idea of doing a film about the famed runner’s life came to Lakew — who plays Bikila in the movie — more than 15 years ago when he was in college.  He was a geology major who took classes in script writing and discovered his passion for film.  Later, Lakew met Frankel at a house party hosted by a painter/sculptor friend who thought the two should meet.

 “Rass told me about Bikila and how he wanted to make a movie. I had worked on independent films before and studied in Kenya at university. When I set out [to do this] I wanted to make sure that the movie was from Rass’ perspective, not some westerner’s view,” Frankel said.

 Frankel and Lakew wasted no time. They jumped headlong into the biopic before the script was even finished.

 “In the beginning I had Rass just tell me a whole bunch of stories about Bikila. He and his cousin had started the script, but we ended up all contributing,” Frankel said.

 Though the creative chemistry was there, Frankel shares that completing the film didn’t come without its challenges.

 “Attempting to accomplish this film with our budget was something else. We were in faraway places with small crews. But, filmmaking has luck and good fortune mixed in and the Ethiopians blessed us.”

The award-winning film “The Athlete” will be shown tonight at the Remis Auditorium at the MFA at

8 p.m. General admission is $11.