100 Seconds to Beat the World: The David Rudisha Story (BBC4)

Some moments are just so perfect they linger in the memory for ever.

The 2012 London Olympics was filled with memorable moments, but the stand out for me was David Rudisha’s astonishing win in the 800m Men’s final.

I enjoy athletics, but I’m not a middle-distance fan. This particular race, however, was unusual. The pace was so staggering, that the athlete that finished last in this race would have won the last three Olympic golds. And the man who won, took four seconds off his own world record.

Just in time for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the BBC presents the inspirational story of Kenyan athlete David Rudisha and the Irish missionary who trains him.

We see a lanky 16-year-old David arrive at St Patricks High School as the only pupil from the Maasai community. Head Master and Irish missionary, Brother Colm O’Connell, welcomes the new class: ‘You are special to us. We take care of you… and you mean something to us.’ Faith, family and community run through the programme as a source of strength and inspiration. The programme refers to both men as ‘David’ and ‘Brother Colm’, suggesting the strong bond between them, as well as Brother Colm’s warm and informal style. The school aims to develop young people as individuals, not just athletes, and school work and prayer are as important as training. After a period of unrest in Kenya, which claimed the life of a close friend of David’s, Brother Colm reiterates the cohesive effect athletics can have as people from different communities work together to represent their country. Its worth noting that the programme makes great use of music to create a sense of place, reflecting the dynamism and confidence of Kenya.

Both David’s talent and his commitment are shown from the start as the show follows key points in his progress. Each point in the story is allowed to unfold naturally, with the story structured with screen inserts rather than voice-over, which feels less invasive. David’s father won silver in the 400m relay at the 1968 Olympics, and David initially runs the same distance. Brother Colm suggests he change to 800m, where he excels. He later wins the World Junior Championships and then enters the difficult transition from junior the senior level. However, injury and a poor showing at the 2009 World Championships threaten to hold him back. This prompts the second biggest change in his sporting career- a shift in tactics to front-running.

Growth, both physical and psychological, is seen in David. The distinction between the relaxed, smiling, softly spoken man we see talking to camera and the focussed, disciplined athlete on the track becomes ever more distinct as time goes on. While he may have been expected to take on a new coach as he moves up to senior level, David sticks with Brother Colm. Living so far from his family, David values Brother Colm’s almost paternal support, as the latter explains the need for psychological as well as physical strength in athletics.
All leading up to that race. Sometimes sport can be done so well, can just look so good, that all attempts to describe it are useless. You just have to see it. The show wisely lets the running do the talking for the crucial race. Everyone in that field acquitted themselves admirably, with many achieving personal or even national bests. In the last 200m, they were all pushing hard, most looking a little ragged, right on the edge of their limits. But David looks so calm and determined, head up, eyes forward, knees high. Racing from the front, the only battle is for second place as he continues to pull forward until he crosses the finish line. The the board flashes up: ‘1.40.91 New WR’ and his hands go up in celebration. It’s the greatest 800m race in history.

The programme could easily have finished there, but it takes the time to close with a real sense of pride and optimism for the future. David proudly shows off his father’s silver medal alongside his own gold from London, before his little girl takes his medal and puts it around her neck with a grin. The training programme at St Patricks continues to thrive, with Brother Colm at the helm. I really enjoyed the sense of continuity that was created, and how the final word was that there is no easy trick to creating an Olympic athlete, and that there is still ‘life after Olympic gold’. The training is all part of Brother Colm’s mission-work to help young people, and part of Kenya’s wider commitment to maintaining its proud record of athletic success.

This was a beautiful story brilliantly told and there is plenty to love here, even if you’re not a fan of athletics.

Did you see the programme? Did you enjoy it? Is there anything you feel I’ve missed out? Do let me know.


Utopia: Series 2, Episode 1 (C4)

They didn’t mess about, did they?

After the demented brilliance of series one last year, C4 kicked off the new series of ‘Utopia’ with two back to back episodes over as many nights, and a mild flurry of controversy.

For the uninitiated: stop reading.  Seriously, go to C4 On Demand and watch the first series.  No plot summary can do justice to the shows twisty narratives, engaging characters and bold visual style.

Assuming you’re up to speed, episode one took the ballsy move of moving away from the people and time we were familiar with and took us back to the conception of The Network and their grim solution to overpopulation.

Rose Leslie and Tom Burke are amazing as young Milner and young Carvel respectively.  These are two characters I was not feeling very charitable towards by the end of series one. Yet by the end of this episode, I couldn’t help but pity them and almost see where they were coming from.  ‘Have you ever seen a genocide?’ asks Milner, ‘I have.’

It was a very smart move setting this in the Winter of Discontent: power cuts and strikes, rubbish uncollected and coffins unburied.  God, the 70s were grim! Carvel is already hanging on to sanity by his fingertips, a hollowed-out Milner doesn’t seem to care if she lives or dies, and her husband is a barely functional alcoholic.  Suggesting the human consequences of a system on the verge of collapse really brought home the potential problems of overpopulation.  And against such a backdrop, the Solution didn’t seem quite so mad, or so appalling. It was also intriguing to learn that even The Network draws the line somewhere, with Milner shooting down Carvels’ bright idea to end all racism by ending all but one race.

It all comes apart at the seams, naturally, as Milner cuts off every human relationship, sacrificing all connections to the outside world in her fervour to find and implement Janus.  Carvel is pulled the other way, brought back into the species by his love for Jessica, even as he is haunted by his treatment of Pietr: eventually, horrified by his involvement in The Network, he alters Janus and hides it in Jessica.  He condemns the one person he loves most in the world to life as an outcast, in order to protect humanity from his own creation.  All very sad, and terribly human.

And beautifully rendered, as well.  The striking visuals of series one are back in abundance here, including a neat shift in aspect ratio emphasising the move back in time.  There is still a great deal of violence, most notably some unpleasantness involving a rabbit.  But, as it is never casual and never glorified, I’m personally okay with it.  The controversy around the mingling of historical fact and fiction struck me as a bit of a storm in a tea-cup.   Here, the deaths of MPs Richard Sykes and Airey Neave were the work of The Network, not the IRA.    As the real-life events were well over 30 years ago, and we are well aware that this is a work of fiction, I honestly think there was nothing to be alarmed about.  Neave came across pretty well, I thought, wily and not easily intimidated.

All in all a magnificent opening episode: engaging and pacy, it barely put a foot wrong.   Delighted they only made us wait a day for episode two…

Do you agree?  Have I missed something important?  Is there anything you’ve seen recently that compares?