Review of “Today we Die a Little – The Rise and Fall of Emil Zatopek, Olympic Legend” by Richard Askwith
This excellent biography uses one of the famous quotes attributed to its subject as its title. But I’ve entitled this blog with a quote that struck me even more. It doesn’t feel very likely that an Olympic champion would say this about their fellow competitors these days. But the theme running through this book is that the Czech Emil Zatopek deserves the status of sporting hero as much for his generous spirit as his incredible achievements in athletics.
Before reading the book I had heard the name Zatopek as a famous athlete of the black and white era, but other than that knew nothing about him – exactly when he ran, what distances, what he won etc. But while I was approaching the subject fresh, I had read one of the author’s previous books about running – the mini-classic “Feet in the Clouds” – so I had high expectations. They were not disappointed.
Askwith has a breezy, eminently readable style that draws you in effortlessly to his subject. And Zatopek’s story is worth telling. A moderately talented athlete, he became the best primarily through sheer hard work – a maniacal training regime totally unusual for the time. This initially brought him a gold and silver in the 10,000m and 5,000m at the 1948 Olympics, as well as a number of records. But I knew so little about him I was even unaware of the achievement for which he is most famous – an unbelievable triple gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics of 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon. And I thought Mo Farah’s “double double” of 5,000m/10,000m golds at 2012 and 2016 was the greatest Olympic achievement in long distance running!
But there’s a lot more to this book than athletics. Equal weight is placed on exploring Zatopek’s personality – his cheerful demeanour, his time for fans and people generally, including the touching relationship with his wife. But in particular, the graciousness of his dealings with fellow athletes. Competing for Zatopek ultimately appears to have been a vehicle for making friends. He even gifted one of his Olympic medals to another athlete who had missed out through bad luck.
The book’s title mentions the “Rise and Fall” and, not unusually in sporting biography, we find that our hero’s life after retiring from their sport was not so spectacularly successful as their earlier career. Zatopek spoke out against the repression that followed the liberating “Prague Spring” of 1968 and was gradually frozen out of society as a result. He was dismissed from the Czech army and ended up working in a drilling gang in remote areas, living in a caravan.
It’s a real additional strength of the book that it acts as an effective history of Czechoslovakia, as well as of Zatopek. Ironically, Zatopek’s life (1922-2000) almost exactly dovetails that of the country. Much of that time it was a totalitarian state, and we are drawn into the difficulties and dilemmas of being that state’s most famous international figure (at times the book reads like some real life parallel of 1984 or a spy-thriller!). I was reminded of the best book I have read about the recent history of Northern Ireland – Johnny Rogan’s biography of Van Morrison. A good biography can do that.
Recommended. Put it on your Christmas list. It made me want to go out running.