Dir. Sam Blair, UK, 2012, 86 mins.
Review by Adam Hollingworth
Apparently the 2012 Olympic Games are being held in London, and since there are now only two months to go until everybody in the country suddenly becomes an expert on diving and gymnastics the propaganda machine is working overtime. Into this proliferation of inspirational fables and coverage emphasizing all the hard work that goes into one moment of potential glory or upset is Personal Best, a documentary filmed over four years that chronicles the trials and tribulations of four young track athletes over competitive events preceding the UK trials for the Olympics at the end of June.
The athletes representing the many young sportspeople battling against each other and their own demons for the chance to compete in the Olympics cover a range of disciplines, experience levels and social backgrounds. James Ellington is an unsponsored sprinter supporting a wife and child who returns to his first trainer John Powell to physically and psychologically rebuild himself following years of grueling and confidence-bashing competitions. Jeanette Kwakye is also a sprinter: Britain’s most successful for three decades and a finalist at Beijing in 2008, but who has since been recovering from injuries. Richard Alleyne is a hurdler, who likewise has been recovering his form and rank after years of being left in the wilderness by a crippling knee injury. Omardo Anson is by far the youngest athlete featured at 17 years old, and is facing the decision of whether to make athletics his life having established himself as a leading British youth over 60m.
In the case of each athlete a small portion of screen time is devoted to their personal life and social histories and circumstances, especially in the cases of Ellington and Anson where we are introduced to various members of their close family, but the vast majority of the film focusses directly upon the often numerous training regimes undertaken by each athlete. Consequently the film offers a very thorough account of just how debilitating the effects of injuries are on the athletes, the sheer amount of time and effort that has to be dedicated to training including the sacrifice of all other personal concerns, and the struggle between the mind and the body in pushing oneself to the physical limit to attain the peak level of sporting performance. The film covers this training with no small amount of style and visual panache, with the uses of slow motion, out-of-focus shots and close-ups, supplemented by heightened sound effects and a musical score predominantly consisting of sustained chords, making for a piece that feels much more cinematic than the many televisual pieces which chart similar territory.
However, for a sports documentary that dedicates itself to the youth of Great Britain, and which takes only tentative steps towards exploring a more panoramic and all-inclusive view of the featured athletes’ lives, the shadow of Hoop Dreams looms very largely indeed over the film. Steve James’ film similarly covered multiple aspiring athletes over a number of years, but the focus of that film was as much on the social, economic, personal and educational problems facing the subjects as on their athletic progression. The result was a deeply engrossing film which supplemented our empathy for the young boys by immersing us in every aspect of their lives, and by concentrating ostensibly solely on the athletes’ training Sam Blair’s film is unable to engage us in their world to anything like the same degree.
Perhaps the point is that these track athletes’ lives are so geared towards their training, indeed three of the four have already made it their chosen career, that everything else in their life is secondary to the sport. The opening monologue, heard as a voice-over to the recurring image of a digital stopwatch, asserts track athletics as being the purest form of sport since it involves the supreme concentration of physical prowess. It is about the very long process leading to the almost instantaneous moment. Yet this indicates the major flaw of the film: for this reviewer, the 10-20 second duration of a track race is the limit to which it is visually and emotionally interesting, and as such even a film as concise as this very quickly outstayed its welcome.
One doesn’t doubt the good intentions and the heart that went into a project such a long time in the making, but as some of the featured athletes will no doubt experience for themselves sometimes years of preparation leads only to the crushing disappointment of failure.