Books 101: Two books on Emil Zátopek

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Today we die.jpgToday we die a little, Richard Askwith, London, Yellow Jersey, 2016 ISBN 9780224100342

endurance.jpgEndurance, Rick Broadbent, London, Bloomsbury 2016. ISBN: 978-1-4729-2022-5

Please enjoy the 2 book reviews on Emil Zátopek, reviewed by Stuart Weir.

Emil Zátopek

Emil Zátopek, from Czechoslovakia, won 5 Olympic medals. In 1948 he took gold in the 10,000m and silver in the 5,000m. Four years later he won the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon. One of his sayings was: "If you want to run, run a mile; if you want to experience a different life, run a marathon." He died in 2000 aged 78. His wife, Dana Zátopková, who died earlier this year aged 97, won gold in the javelin in 1952.

Curiously two biographies of him were published in 2016

Today we die a little, Richard Askwith, London, Yellow Jersey, 2016 ISBN 9780224100342

Endurance, Rick Broadbent, London, Bloomsbury 2016. ISBN: 978-1-4729-2022-5

Today we die a little

Today we die.jpg

The book presents Emil Zátopek as much more than just the greatest distance runner ever. It gets inside the man who achieved everything "with a grace and generosity of spirit that transcended sport". The author suggests that Emil was known for "sensational racing and insane training routines but also about his warmth, his sportsmanship, his spontaneous generosity". The book title, incidentally, is based on something Emil is thought to have said to his competitors on the start-line of the Olympic marathon in Melbourne 1956.

His attitude to competition was interestingly "always about more than the victory". He regarded tactics as a little underhand and was more interested in improving his own performance than about what an opponent was doing. However, one of the joys of competition for him was the pleasure of forming friendships with athletes from foreign countries.

Emil was a reluctant runner at first, having been forced to run in a race for his employer. He later described himself as "I was an average athlete - a normal boy. It took me three years to win a race. I was glad that I endured those three years".

The secret of his success was his training. As one writer put it "Before Zátopek, nobody had realised it was humanly possible to train this hard". His training involved more intensity, more speed, more focus and more thought than anyone had previously tried. And he did it without a coach and often without training partners - because they could not keep up. The book tells a great story about him taking a dog on a run. Next day the dog hid in its kennel rather than go again!

Much of the book is taken up with an attempt to understand what Zátopek's role was in relation to all that was going on politically in the country. The author admits to struggling to make sense of it. At times he seemed to stand up t0 the communist state, at others to acquiesce.

The enigma of Emil Zatopek is perhaps well summed up in the sentence from the book: "Officialdom never stopped being exasperated by him. Ordinary people never stopped feeling empowered and inspired by him".

An outstanding book.

Endurance

endurance.jpg

One interesting insight from the book is the assertion that it was not Zátopek's idea but Lieutenant Colonel Sabl's that he should run the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon treble in the 1952 Olympics.

The book also documents his fall from grace when he is accused of being a traitor, barred from speaking to journalists or westerners, given menial jobs, expelled from the Communist Party and sacked by the army.

On the issue of Zatopek's attitude to issues outside of sport, Broadbent comments: "He was a pragmatic soul and would bend with the wind if it made for an easier life. Later, he would be held up as a courageous fighter for liberty, but others said that his motives were more expedient" and "not as politically rigid as later commentators would paint him".

An excellent and well researched book.

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