Biruk Fikadu, the young narrator of the documentary film Town of Runners, tells us out the outset: “Running is work.” The film—shot over the course of three years (2008-2010) follows the trajectories of two young women from Bekoji, Ethiopia, in the Oromia region, as they pursue careers in the sport of athletics. A look back at the film, which was first released in 2012, now offers much more than a glimpse into the working conditions of athletes; it also offers insights into the overall changing economic landscape and infrastructural development in Ethiopia.
Alemi Tsegaye and Hawi Mergesa, teenagers coached by the legendary Coach Sentayehu, are aspiring runners seeking to follow in the footsteps of Bekoji-born legends Derartu Tulu, Tirunesh Dibaba, and Kenenisa Bekele, among others. We learn early on that, like many young women in Bekoji, their options outside of running are few. “Her future must be running. There is nothing else—only education, running… marriage,” Hawi’s mother tells us.
That running is even a serious option, however, is depicted as a locational opportunity-specific to Bekoji. It is a town of runners, after all, a space of exception where Coach Sentyaehu tells us running is accepted, as opposed to other places in Ethiopia where parents would think their children had “gone mad” if they were trotting through the forests in early mornings.
However, Bekoji’s centrality to Ethiopian running, while perhaps true when filming began in 2008, has changed. The reasons for the more widely disseminated athletic centers currently in Ethiopia is in part due to the inauguration of the expansive club system that the film documents. As the Ethiopian Athletic Federation and local governments pledged to roll out a network of training centers in 2008 to develop the next generation of athletic icons, Coach Sentayehu brings Hawi and Alemi, among others, to the neighboring city of Assella to compete at a regional competition. Performing well on the gravel track means they will be selected to a club elsewhere in Ethiopia.
Infrastructure runs parallel to Hawi and Alemi’s athletic development. As the two move out of Bekoji and enter the club system, we are given periodic glimpses of the Chinese-funded road to Bekoji that is under construction. This development, unsurprisingly, is non-linear, and carries a plethora of ironies along with it. In one scene, Coach Sentayehu’s athletes use rakes shovels to restore the local track after the rainy season. He points out that with Chinese machinery, they could do the work in 30 minutes that will take the athletes days to complete. “The work is endless” he says, before we hear one athlete in the background exasperatedly yell, “Oh, Ethiopia!”
The contradictory forms of development also follow Hawi and Alemi’s athletic trajectories. When they get selected to new government-funded clubs, from which they are promised a salary, accommodations, and high class training, they confront bleaker realities. Alemi gets selected to the Holeta Club under a two-year contract and is greeted by the club manager with running clothes, new shoes, and an assigned bunk in female quarters. Hawi, by contrast, despite showing more promise, ends up at Woliso club, gets outfitted with dramatically oversized clothes, and arrives in an unfinished dormitory with no bed.
We see the girls reunite in Addis Ababa where the Ethiopian Athletics Federation and the Ministry of Youth and Sport announce the dedication of governmental support to the clubs. A teary-eyed Hawi tells her friend Alemi, as they stare at officials dining on a literal red carpet, that her club’s organization was chaotic.
Hawi returns to Bekoji for Easter but cannot finish a training session under Coach Sentayehu. Concerned, he approaches her, and she confesses that she has not trained in four months, due to illness and injury. The added pressure she feels becomes clear to Coach Sentayehu when she tells him she has been told to be grateful and that the “money spent on [them] could build a new road.”
Although Alemi excels at her club, she is among the few. Others, not performing to a high enough standard, are let go. Hawi, meanwhile, begs her manager for a release, and transfers to a new club in Asella, which for a while she finds far more preferable. However, despite enjoying the training, just one day before her and her teammates are due to attend the Oromia club championships in Nazaret, budgetary constraints threaten their promised transport. The athletes band together and demand a meeting with the manager, threatening, hazily, to go on strike.
Ultimately, Hawi returns to the town of runners to train again under Coach Sentayehu. When she does go back to Bekoji we see shots of a finished road, but Biruk skeptically ruminates on how this will affect the future of his town, his own options for work, and later foreign investment in Ethiopia. The film is chalk-full of these tense moments—grounded with unfulfilled promises and lack of funds, but over-ridden, if only for the few moments of a beautifully tactical race, by glances of future triumphs and athletic success. And, it is for this reason, that Town of Runners does help tie together domains often separated in analyses—sport, work, and international infrastructural and economic investment—so tactfully.