wed 24/07/2024

Personal Best | reviews, news & interviews

Personal Best

Personal Best

Documentary counts the gruelling cost of preparing for Olympic success

'Why am I doing this?' British sprinter Jeanette Kwakye leaves the starting blocks yet again

Of the rash of Olympic-themed films lining up on the startline, there is a double entry from Chariots of Fire, digitally remastered on film and freshly rebooted for the stage, as well as a forthcoming feelgood drama about young women in a relay squad – a sort of Round the Bend with Beckham – called Fast Girls.

But for sheer drama, sport often leaves fiction trailing a distant second, which is the thought running through the head of Personal Best as it waits for the gun.

Filmed by Sam Blair over four years, it follows the journey of four British athletes as they prepare for competition. No need to specify which competition. The action, such as it is, begins in 2007 the year before the Beijing Games, but with its eye evidently set on the then distant horizon of 2012. It concludes in 2011, long before the denouement we all want to know about: whether any of the participants will qualify next month for the Games themselves. The UK's fastest current female 100m runner Jeanette Kwakye, who finished sixth in Beijing, can presumably count on a place in London unless the wheels come off. James Ellington (pictured below), who runs over 200m, can be slightly less certain of qualifying for the privilege of being shown a clean pair of lucratively sponsored heels by Usain Bolt. Two other subjects – an injury-prone hurdler and. filmed over a year, a promising young sprinter - make up the numbers and plump out the picture.

As a portrait of the Herculean effort required to reach the top in athletics, Personal Best cannot be faulted. The relentless training, gruelling regime in the gym, the susceptibility to twanging tendons and muscular twinges, are all faithfully reported. There is a great deal of bellowing from coaches, as is often the case when young people are being driven beyond their physical limits. You’re left in no doubt of the precarious line these personable young athletes walk. They commit themselves to a poorly funded and extremely short career with few opportunities to shine, and big rewards available only to those who can get within hailing distance of a major final.

No wonder it tends to breed intensely focused automata who have the bland mantras of sporting psychobabble running round and round their heads like dishes in a sushi bar. Blair does his (personal) best to get under the skin of these highly motivated individuals. "Why am I doing this?" asks Kwakye. "I don't want to be normal," says Ellington. The result captures perhaps a little too faithfully the grinding tedium of prepaping for success. Although it breasts the tape in under 90 minutes, this is a film about sprinting which trudges once too often round the track. That said, Blair’s commitment over four years is to be applauded, not to mention his courage in gambling on four athletes not all of whom turn out to have that gripping story. He also films training sessions and races with an arty avoidance of convention. It's not always riveting, but Personal Best is a must see for anyone who wants the inside track on the ordeal endured by anyone lining up at London 2012.

Watch the trailer for Personal Best

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As a portrait of the Herculean effort required to reach the top in athletics, Personal Best cannot be faulted


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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