“He was, for two decades in the mid-twentieth century, the most celebrated sportsman on earth. Even now, he remains exceptionally honoured, with his own statue (one of only four) outside the official Olympic museum in Lausanne. Runner’s World named him the greatest runner of all time — over any distance — as recently as 2013. Yet the facts of his life as a human being are obscured, not just by barriers of time, language, and ideology but, above all, by myth.”
– Richard Askwith, Today We Die a Little!
“There is not, and never was, a greater man than Emil Zátopek.”
– Ron Clarke
When did I first encounter the name Emil Zátopek and when did I first embrace the myth of the runner whose feats of endurance were matched only by his gestures of kindness and sportsmanship? Was it in the 1970s, when Finnish distance runner Lasse Viren was winning gold medals in the 5000 and 10000m at the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games? I suppose it would have been natural then to hear comparisons between Viren and Zátopek, whose singular accomplishment of winning gold medals in the 5000, 10,000, AND the marathon (in his first attempt at the distance) at the 1952 Olympics has never been equaled. But it seems strange that I can’t remember.
In a way, it feels as though I’ve always known about Zátopek, an athlete whose career was essentially over before I was born. But what did I know? That he won those three races in Helsinki among many others and set world records with times that seem modest today, that he ran like a man who was always in pain (“like he had been stabbed in the heart,” “like he had a scorpion in each shoe”, and so on…), that — notwithstanding the grimace on his face — he faced the task of running distance races with unfailing good humor, that he gave away an Olympic gold medal to another runner, that he was humble and friendly towards strangers who sought him out, that he always had a word of encouragement for his fellow runners… that he changed the face of distance running by showing that it was possible to endure more in training than had been thought possible.
For a student of the sport, you just had to know about Emil Zátopek. It was like having a passport that allowed you to travel back in time to a different world and meet one of the foundational figures of modern Track and Field. One of my running buddies met Zátopek and his wife Dana in Prague in the 1980s, and has spoken with reverence about the encounter ever since. A colleague at my school still cherishes a postcard he received from Zátopek in response to a letter he wrote a quarter-century ago. There was something undeniably inspiring and charismatic about this man who had endured so much to achieve greatness, and yet had taken on the burden so willingly and with so much evident joy and generosity. Even fifty years later, Zátopek still stood at the pinnacle of what it meant to be a distance runner.
I thought I knew the most important things about Emil Zátopek, but I was wrong. I didn’t know much about his life as a human being, and so I didn’t know the most important things about a man who, as one writer said, “ran like us.”
A couple of years ago, I spent an evening in the company of friends, one of whom — Iva — had grown up in Prague and had known Emil and his wife Dana, an Olympic gold medalist in the javelin at the 1952 Helsinki Games. Later, I wrote a post based on a story that Iva told us that night. In spite of the errors in my post, it caught the attention of British author Richard Askwith, who was in the midst of researching a biography of Zátopek. Askwith reached out to me, and eventually I was able to help him get in touch with Iva. In that way, I heard about and played a tiny part in the process that has produced Askwith’s book: “Today We Die a Little: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time.”
The book is an audacious undertaking. So much has already been written about Zátopek’s career that another book risks being swallowed up by the existing hagiography and all of our predetermined notions about who Zátopek was and what his career was all about. But I think the book succeeds in a remarkable way by telling the Zátopek’s story in a way that makes the life of the human being seem greater, even as it is more flawed, than the career of the runner. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that when you know more about Zátopek the man, the races and the famous victories — as well as the gestures of sportsmanship — seem to matter more, seem to be less inevitable, and thus more incredible.
There is also something undeniably sad in Askwith’s account of this man’s life. I’ve been inspired by Zátopek as long as I can remember, but I never contemplated the long decline and attendant suffering that he endured after falling out of favor with the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. It’s hard enough to retire from the arena and the cheers, but to do so while being crushed and (one might say) corrupted by an ideology that no longer has use for the victories on the track seems immeasurably more tragic.
This is not the first biography of Zátopek I’ve read. I have, for example, Bob Phillips book (“Zá-to-pek, Zá-to-pek, Zá-to-pek“), which provides in astounding detail a chronicle of Zatopek’s victories, as well as observations by contemporary writers who were witness to those triumphs. Even today, it’s hard to believe how dominant he was over 5K and 10k, while racing far more than today’s runners. But of his life after his athletic career wound down, there is little.
By contrast, from the beginning of his book, Askwith poses a central question: why do we know so little about Zátopek’s life beyond those victories? “Today we Die a Little” is dedicated to telling the story of that life in full detail. The book is exhaustively researched; I am in awe of the author’s efforts to track down and speak with those who knew Zátopek, and to provide depth and insight into the historical and societal context of Zátopek’s journey. But all this detail never feels wasted or ponderous. Instead, it serves to reveal the uniqueness of Zátopek, while at the same time humanizing him. Askwith’s achievement, I think, is to write about the “Fall” of Zátopek with such compassion that even as our larger-than-life hero is revealed to be life-sized after all, we begin to appreciate that life even more, and with a broader range of emotions.
I should not neglect to say that Askwith’s book also delves deeply into the aspects of Zátopek’s approach to training and racing that make him such a significant figure for those that followed him. As a runner, he was an independent thinker and innovator, who tested limits like no one before since. But unlike, for example, Paavo Nurmi who was considered aloof and solitary, Zátopek shared freely everything he learned. Zátopek set the bar higher and made other runners better, and then had the grace to congratulate them for it. After Helsinki, the world of distance running would never be the same.
I’m not sure what more to say to convince everyone I know to read this book. I have now read it twice, and it keeps getting better. One thing I’m struck by, on second reading, is that for Zátopek, running was truly an expression of his love of life and his love for his friends, and not merely a grind to achieve medals or times. It helps explain why other runners, including his fiercest rivals, loved him so, why the whole world cheered him and saw him as an athlete who transcended the chasm of cold war politics, and why Ron Clarke spoke of him as the greatest man he had ever known.
Let me end by quoting Askwith again, in a passage that I have grown to love:
“Nothing I have learnt while researching this book alters that special quality of Emil’s soul; or for that matter, the essential contours of his life. There really was a poor boy from Koprivnice who built himself up through his own efforts and ingenuity, step by painful step, to be the most famous athlete the world had seen, There really was a man who discovered that, by loading himself up with pain (boots, sand, snow, burdens), he could learn to shrug it off. There really was a runner who reached such summits of achievement that he redefined the boundaries of his sport — and yet maintained throughout his journey a lightness of heart and warmth and spirit that brightened the lives of those whose paths crossed his. And there really was a sportsman whose gift for friendship brought a divided world a little closer together; who shared himself and his success with every ordinary person who asked; who shared his home and his medals as gladly as he shared his time and expertise; and whose charisma, for a while, helped to stop a superpower’s invasion in its tracks.
In the end, they broke him. There’s no point denying that; and broken lives are rarely pretty. Even then, though, enough of Emil’s great spirit remained for more or less everyone who came in contact with him to feel privileged to have done so.“