Hang up your running shoes

Jon Day

  • Today We Die a Little: The Rise and Fall of Emil Zatopek, Olympic Legend by Richard Askwith
    Yellow Jersey, 480 pp, £16.99, April 2016, ISBN 978 0 224 10034 2
  • Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zatopek by Rick Broadbent
    Wisden, 320 pp, £16.99, April 2016, ISBN 978 1 4729 2022 5

He was the greatest long-distance runner of the mid-20th century, but when he ran Emil Zátopek looked ridiculous. His face was a mask of pain and his head lolled to the side, as though his neck couldn’t hold it up. The American sportswriter Red Smith said he ‘ran like a man with a noose around his neck, the most frightful horror spectacle since Frankenstein, on the verge of strangulation’. His arms flailed, another journalist wrote, as if he was ‘wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt’. Below the waist his movement was efficient and graceful, but Zátopek knew he lacked what sports commentators call ‘style’. ‘I am not talented enough to run and smile at the same time,’ he once said. On the track he suffered, and he was loved because he showed it.

Emil Zátopek
Emil Zátopek

By modern standards some of his achievements seem modest. He was the first person to run 10,000 metres in under 29 minutes, but runners are now getting close to 26 minutes. He would not have qualified for the 10,000 metres event in the 2016 Olympics, and his marathon times are now matched by those of strong amateurs. The range of his abilities, however, remains unequalled. He was 174.3 cm tall and weighed 68 kg. He had long legs, but his left was slightly thinner than his right. His resting heart rate was measured, on different occasions, at 68 and 56 bpm. Both rates are high for a runner, though it was noted that he was able to recover quickly after exercise. He had an odd diet, fuelling himself before races with beer, cheese, sausages and bread. He drank strange concoctions that he thought would improve his performance: the juice from jars of pickles; a mixture of lemon juice (for vitamin C) and chalk (he thought the calcium would protect his teeth). He ate the leaves of young birch trees because he had noticed that deer did so. Deer run quickly, he reasoned, so he might too. He experimented with eating dandelions, as well as ‘vast quantities of garlic’, and when people asked him why he told them: ‘The hare runs through the woods, eats what he finds – and he’s fine.’ He spoke at least eight languages, which he taught himself by reading dictionaries. ‘Learn enough words,’ he said, ‘and the grammar looks after itself.’ During long runs he used to chat to his competitors, which some took for friendliness, others arrogance.

Both Richard Askwith and Rick Broadbent have gone through the archives and spoken to those who knew Zátopek – particularly his wife, Dana, an Olympic gold-medal-winning javelin thrower – in order to tell his story in unprecedented detail. Zátopek was born in 1922 and grew up in Kopřivnice in what was then Moravia in Czechoslovakia, and is now part of the Czech Republic. His father, who worked as a carpenter in a car factory, used to beat his children with a belt until Emil’s mother took it away and burned it. After that he beat them with a ruler. As a child Zátopek shunned sport, having been discouraged by his father, who felt that it was a waste of time and shoe leather, and that spare energy would be better spent working on the family’s smallholding. His parents’ indifference continued long after Zátopek became successful. When he first broke the Czech national record for 2000 metres in 1944, his father wrote to him: ‘We are worried about your health, and so we have decided that you will stop it. It is time to hang up your running shoes.’ Emil ignored him.

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