Emil Zátopek (September 1922 – November 2000) is one of the greatest Olympians of all time. He is one of the ultimate distance runners.
Why? I don’t know. Or, I didn’t.
All I knew was the name, and a place.
Emil Zátopek. Czechoslovakia.
Having read this book, written by Richard Askwith, I now know what I needed to know.
And I did need to know it.
Reading this book gives a great sense that, for someone committed to the sport of running, or even just curious about it, the story of Zátopek is essential. This is because his story, at least in the way in which Askwith tells it, is not just the story of one man, but the whole nation of Czechoslovakia.
Just look at the dates of his birth, and his death. Perhaps you already know what one who had lived between those dates must have gone through, particularly someone living in the eastern reaches of Europe. Through his life he, and his country, had to deal with World War II, Nazi occupation, liberation, and then in the aftermath, Communism, and the Soviet Union.
So you might imagine that Emil would naturally be a serious man. Of course, in those days there were no professional Olympians, so he was in the military for his day job, which, again, may colour your expectations. But Emil is such a lingering figure in the sport not just because of his achievements (triple Gold medals, Helsinki Olympics 1952), but because of his character. Because of his belief in the spirit of the Olympics. Because of his generosity, humour, and his dedication to pure, hard work.
You can watch him run on YouTube, and I recommend you do. Watch him grimace, watch him flail. One of the greatest athletes of all time, and not because of anything that nature gave him. If he was given anything, it was just grit. Determination. Bloody mindedness.
Look at his training:
‘The Winter of 1953-4 saw him subjecting himself to his toughest workload yet, much of it away from home[…]
[…]He accumulated the following daily totals (with 150m recovery jogs in between each approximate lap)
Monday 15th: 70 x 400m
Tuesday 16th: 40 x 400m
Wednesday 17th: 40 x 400m
Thursday 18th: 80 x 400m
Friday 19th: 80 x 400m
Saturday 20th: 70 x 400m
Sunday 21st: 40 x 400m’
I don’t imagine you will find any coach which recommends that you follow such a regime, but here was a man who believed in suffering, who believed in the benefits of pain. Speaking of which, the title comes from a (perhaps apocryphal) phrase which he muttered to his fellow runners before the Melbourne Olympic Marathon in 1956. True or not, it is a perfect title for this book, a perfect summation of the runners philosophy.
And yes, the book is so good in part simply because Emil’s story is so inspiring and interesting, but it would be disingenuous to not credit Askwith. He does well to build the world that Emil lived in, and to capture the sense that, once upon a time, Emil Zátopek was the biggest name in sport, despite the fact that nowadays we hear his name far less frequently. And although Askwith is clearly, rightly, a little in awe of his subject, he does not shy away from the darkness of his life. The book is a full biography, it does not peak with Emil’s career. Post-athletics, his life was no less interesting, and is all the more controversial. The details of his relationship with the regime which ruled his country are still not definitive.
Really, this is not just a book for runners. For runners, it will serve as inspiration, certainly, but there is more to it than that.
This is an excellent, detailed, personal, historic account of a time, a place, and a man.