I just finished reading a wonderful biography by Richard Askwith, TODAY WE DIE A LITTLE: THE INIMITABLE EMIL ZATOPEK, THE GREATEST OLYMPIC RUNNER OF ALL TIME. To most people today, it may be news when the author, as well as track historians, declare Emil Zatopek the greatest runner of all time. This is something every Czech knows–and would probably add that he was the greatest Czech athlete, from any sport, in the nation’s history. After all, Zatopek won the 5,000-meter, 10,000-meter, and marathon in a single Summer Olympics. He won distance races all over the world. Interval training, so commonplace today, was Zatopek’s creation. His achievements during a decade as the world’s top distance runner are even more incredible when one realizes, as the author so painstakingly tells us, that Emil was not a great talent. He simply outworked everyone and overcame great odds through his force of will; indeed, in each race and during each practice, he “died a little.”
As a writer, I admire Mr. Askwith’s impeccable research, and his honesty. While he is admittedly an admirer of Emil Zatopek, he does not steer away from writing about his flaws and errors. As one who escaped with his parents from Communist tyranny in Czechoslovakia, I can’t help but wonder why Emil and his wife Dana did not do the same. I fail to understand why he allowed himself to become a propaganda tool for a corrupt regime. The Zatopeks certainly had many opportunities to go into exile, but they always returned to their homeland after competing in free countries.
In my view, the best part of the book began with the 1968 Prague Spring. By that time, some 20 years into Communist rule, Zatopek had realized that life and freedom outside the Iron Curtain was one he would prefer in his own country. Publicly, he supported the reforms of Alexander Dubcek, and he vigorously denounced the August invasion by the Soviets and their allies, and particularly the clamp-down on freedom that followed. For this, he was severely punished. Like many Czechs, however, eventually he retracted his criticism. It would be easy to blame Zatopek–and other Czechs–for “going along to get along.” But the author makes clear that this would be unfair. We were not there during those stressful and dangerous times. How would we have reacted? Askwith treats all these issues with care and gentleness. In the end, he declares Zatopek a hero of high moral character. With only a bit of trepidation, I must agree.
This is a wonderful biography. Whether or not one is into running, it will provide a window into a complex man and into living and surviving in a corrupt society. I recommend it as highly as is possible.