The Boy With the Fast Finish

I didn’t manage to see any new movies this Christmas, but I was curious to see how moviegoers and film critics would respond to “Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s unforgettable biography of Louis Zamperini.

Most reviews seemed lukewarm, and the consensus seemed to be that Jolie had transformed the messy but inspiring story of the juvenile delinquent who became an Olympic runner who became a prisoner of war who became a born-again Christian… into a gorgeous but uninspiring film.

Among the reviews, there was an article by columnist Aisha Harris on Slate.com entitled “How Accurate is Unbroken.” The article contained the following passage:

“Also seen in the film is Zamperini’s participation in the 5000-meter dash at the 1936 Olympics, where he placed eighth but broke another record: He ran the final lap in just 56 seconds, beating the previous Olympic record of 69.2 seconds, “a monumental feat.” (The film doesn’t mention it, but Zamperini caught the eye of Adolf Hitler, who wanted to meet him after the race. “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish,” Hitler apparently said to him in German, via a translator.)”

Having written about Zamperini twice before, I hadn’t been intending to submit any further thoughts on the book, the movie, or the man, but that passage irked me so much that I knew I couldn’t let it pass.

Let’s get the obvious issues out of the way first.

  • The 5000 is not a dash.
  • There is no official “record” for the final lap of a 5000.
  • Any unofficial record of 69.2 for the final lap of an Olympic 5000m final should be viewed with skepticism. There is NO WAY that in an era that lacked any automatic timing equipment, there was accurate timing of final laps for all participants.

But none of the above matters much, because there is a much bigger problem with the passage in Slate and with the way the Olympic final is depicted in the film. The problem is that Zamperini ran the first 4600m in 13:51, an average of about 72 seconds per lap. Running his final lap in 56 seconds was not a “monumental feat,” it was evidence that his pacing for the entire race was horribly inefficient and made him a non-factor, unlike his compatriot Don Lash, who stayed with the leaders early and faded at the end, to be passed by Zamperini, among others. It makes no sense to celebrate Zamperini’s fast finish, no matter how impressive the speed. Even the Chancellor of Nazi Germany seems rather more inclined to mock than to praise. “The boy with the fast finish…” The boy who hadn’t learned how to race or how to prepare.

Had Louis been an actual schoolboy in a local track meet and pulled the same stunt, lagging far behind for most of a race and then putting on a huge sprint at the end to pass the stragglers and finish 8th, his coach would take him aside afterward and explain the facts of life. You don’t get to look good at the finish if you haven’t put in the work from the start. In the movie scene, above, the fictional announcer seems impressed by the runner in the back of the pack, half a minute behind the leader. Sorry, that wouldn’t happen either.

In her book, Hillenbrand makes clear that Zamperini was out of shape at the Olympics, having gained 12 pounds on the transatlantic passage to Europe after the Olympic Trials. As a depression-era kid, it’s understandable that he would gorge himself on the free food provided to the athletes. Nevertheless, as far as running a competitive 5000m, his appetite and incorrigible desire to have a good time above all else, was his weakness and put him at a terrible disadvantage.

Pacing… it’s an art and a science.

In biography, pacing is the art of allowing a life to unfold in all its richness and complexity, details accumulating gradually as a fully realized picture comes into perspective. In racing, it is the science of using speed and endurance to maximum effect, to win, or at least do your best.

Laura Hillenbrand seems to have mastered the art, but at the Olympics, Zamperini didn’t get it right.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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