Hang up your running shoes

Jon Day

  • BuyToday 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
  • BuyEndurance: 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.

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