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"God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast and when I run, I feel his pleasure."

Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire

Today we die a little

Return to the book list for titles beginning with 'T'.

Richard Askwith, London, Yellow Jersey, 2016 ISBN 9780224100342

The book presents Email Zatopek 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 Zatopek, 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!

The book also sets out the argument that Zatopek was effectively a full-time athlete, with a job in the army, which accommodated his training.

Much of the book is taken up with an attempt to understand what Zatopek’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, saying that he had set out: “to celebrate the life and soul of one of sport’s noblest heroes. Somehow I seem to have spent much of my time since then probing his alleged shortcomings”.

The book quotes Frolik’s contention that “the whole Zatopek legend of friendship, chivalry and shared humanity – was just one monstrous fraud”. The evidence presented certainly adds up to a confused picture.

The author sets the context that Emil lived “under a regime that trapped all who lived under it in the same cruel dilemma: submit to the Party – or be (at best) a second-class citizen”. He adds “to paint Emil as the villain in Czechoslovakia’s tragedy is to misunderstand both it and him. He was a victim: not a blameless one, but a victim none the less. He spent most of his adult life being bullied and ordered around: by the Bat’a management, by the Nazis, by his superiors in the army, by the CSTV, by the StB, by the Czechoslovak Communist Party…”

The inconclusive evidence shows Emil refusing to go to the 1952 Olympics until Stanislav Jungwirth, who had been excluded from the Czechoslovak Olympic team for political reasons, was re-instated. He called for the USSR to banned from the 1968 Olympics because of the invasion of Prague. On the other hand he was quick to condemn a dissident, Milada Horakova. When Stalin died, Emil paid a powerful tribute to him.

Explanations offered include that Emil signed what was put in front of him to avoid trouble and allowed the authorities to use his fame for their purposes. Was he threatened with imprisonment etc if he did not sign? It is suggested that he never even saw documents issued in his name. When he condemned Horakova, was he “just saving his own skin? Was he motivated by malice? Or did he genuinely consider it his duty”?

Dr Libor Svoboda of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague comments. “An ideal hero would have refused and left the army. But Zatopek wasn’t an ideal hero in this regard; he wanted to run and he sacrificed very much to achieve this end”. As the author writes: “Defiance looks good on paper. In real life, it comes at a price that many cannot bring themselves to pay”.

One puzzle which remains, it that I recently read a statement in a book*, quoting the Czechoslovak Baptist Convention, that Emil was “a committed Christian who was not afraid to profess his faith in spite of living in an atheistic society”. I found no evidence of that. In fact the book refers to him as an atheist and a Communist.

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.

*Communicating on the playing Field, Josef Solc, Xulon Press, 2009



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