Once Upon a Time in the Vest

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

V 6 N. 80 "Today We Die A Little" a Book Review by Paul O'Shea

Before The Bullet Train, The Czech Locomotive

A Book Review

By Paul O’Shea

My Czechoslovakian mother objected when I joined the high school cross country team. You’ll wear yourself out, it’s bad for your health.  Look how tired you are when you get home from practice.  

The year was l949. I was thirteen and had just entered St. Ignatius High School, confident I could earn a place on the freshman football team. Two days later my gridiron hopes fizzled, but a different future beckoned across the way from the practice field. Around the perimeter, a dozen shirtless boys were relentlessly running laps. They were the school’s cross country team, one of Chicago’s finest.

While the runners didn’t look happy in their pursuits, there was an aura of dedication and camaraderie. And I didn’t need a coach’s approval to join this resolute band. Catching the back of the peloton, I jumped in, and rather than embracing a winning Hail Mary (I was, after all, attending a Jesuit institution), I discovered the sport of a lifetime, competitive running.

As I evaded Betty O’Shea’s oversight that September, thousands of kilometers to the east another athlete with Czech blood was also wearing himself out, but with more success. He was Emil Zatopek. By the time he retired from athletics in the late 1950s, he had won four Olympic gold medals, set 18 world and four Olympic records, and collected three European titles.  He broke Czechoslovakian records, most his own, fifty times.

When we hear his name today, many of us recall a week in the summer of l952 when Emil Zatopek bequeathed the sport a priceless heirloom.  In eight days at the Helsinki Games he achieved what no other Olympic distance runner had ever accomplished: three Olympic victories, each an Olympic record. It was Zatopek’s Golden Week, still an unequaled hat trick.

Widely respected as one of history’s greatest distance runners (in 2013 Runner’s World named him the Greatest Runner of All Time), the name Zatopek takes its place with the incomparable Nurmi, Viren, Gebrselassie, Bekele. But Zatopek’s record isn’t widely known since it took place generations ago. American high school athletes have long since eclipsed his personal bests of 13:57.2 and 28:54.2.

On rare occasions biographies of the same individual surface at the same time. Recently, three books about Zatopek were published. They are: Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zatopek, by Rick Broadbent (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016).  The second: Quicksilver: The Mercurial Emil Zatopek, by Pat Butcher (Globerunner Productions, 2016). Today We Die A Little! The Inimitable Emil Zatopek, The Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time (Nations Books, 2016), is the subject of this review.  

Richard Askwith, executive editor of The Independent, recounts the story of the man who, by his inexhaustible pursuit of competitors, titles and records, came to be known as the Czech Locomotive. The author set himself a formidable challenge. Earlier this year he told Kate Carter of The Guardian: “I assumed that everyone knew his story—and I was shocked to find that most people, or most people under 40, had never heard of him.

“I think of Zatopek as the patron saint of runners,” Askwith said. “He didn’t just revolutionize the sport—he reinvented it.  He rewrote the record books and redrew the boundaries of endurance, redefining the whole idea of what was humanly possible.  No one else before or since dominated distance running in the way that he did in the late l940s and early l950s.”

With Czechoslovakia emerging slowly from World War II’s devastation, Emil Zatopek almost was a Did Not Start.

Born in Koprivince in l922, the carpenter’s son from a poor Moravian family left home at fourteen to improve his career prospects.  He arrived eighty kilometers away in Zlin and found work at the Bata shoe factory (placing shoe lasts on the conveyor belt, he’s the original Shoe Dog).

In l941 the nineteen-year-old was conscripted to run in a company race but rebels. “My knee hurts.”  A company doctor checks him and declares Emil a malingerer. To avoid running (an amusing irony), he hides in a reading room, but is dragged out to the starting line. His biographer declares: “The next five minutes would set the path of his adult life.”  One hundred men and boys start the 1,400-meter race.  Without any training Zatopek beats all but one.

And so began a period of running for the Bata club team while working in its factory.  He runs a promising 4:20 for 1,500 meters, then 4:01.4. Four years later he had set national records at 2,000, 3,000 and 5,000 meters, and placed fifth in the European five thousand.

In a career that lasted 17 years, Zatopek ran hundreds of races, according to Bob Phillips in his Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek!, not a full biography but a useful overview. It was an era when the leading runners of the day (Mimoun, Reiff, Chataway, Kuts, Pirie) went head to head frequently, so different from today’s reluctance by shoe companies, national governing bodies, agents and coaches to risk their athletes’ reputations and economic bargaining power.

Looking at his body of work, principally the three-, five- and ten-thousand-meters (257 races), he won three of every four outings, ranking first in the world twelve times at these distances. He lost only eight of 62 ten-thousand-meter races. At five thousand meters, he won 120 of 141 events. Competing at three thousand meters he was defeated just eight times in 54 races.

One May to September, he raced twenty-two times in eight countries, winning all but once. In the seldom-staged one-hour run he covered a world record 20,052 meters.

Askwith tells us, “The young man who just eleven years earlier had feigned injury to avoid running less than a mile through the streets of Zlin had, in the words of The New York Times, forced ‘the once –peerless Nurmi…to yield his pedestal as the greatest distance runner in history.’” In Lausanne, Switzerland, a bronze statue of Emil Zatopek sits outside the Olympic Museum in its lovely sculpture garden.

If any runner could be labeled “tireless” it was Zatopek.  By his training, competitive strategies and will, he showed the sporting world how countless sessions of intense preparation translated into faster times and victories.

For its time his preparations were extraordinary. Fred Wilt wrote in his How They Train, “Before Zatopek, nobody had realized it was humanly possible to train this hard.” In one ten-day period, he daily ran sixty 400-meter sixty-second intervals.  In one build up to a major fixture he ran one hundred 400-meter intervals in the morning, another one hundred in the afternoon.  Twenty-five miles of quarters.  He believed, and his record proves it, that multiple fast repetitions with minimal rest periods were the key.  “Why should I practice running slow.  I already know how to run slow.  I want to learn to run fast.”

What were the qualities that made Zatopek such a fearsome opponent? The competition changer was his ability to endure pain.  When he faced exhaustion, he went harder. Then harder still. In training and in races.  
The Czech trained in all types of weather.  When Eastern European snows piled high, he ran in place, inside his officer quarters (he had joined the army), or at home.  Before Onitsuka Tigers were a gleam in an Asian eye, his trainers were military combat boots.

One much discussed characteristic was his unusual running style, earning him the Czech Locomotive sobriquet. Head tipped to the side, he thrashed about, looking like a man trapped inside a beehive, but below the waist he was Sebastian Coe smooth. Well aware of what others were saying about his agonized expression and flailing arms, he countered: “I shall learn to have a better style once they start judging races according to their beauty.  So long as it’s a question of speed my attention will be directed to seeing how fast I can cover the ground.  It is not gymnastics or ice skating, you know.”  

Another task Askwith set for himself was to challenge some of the myths that grew around the legendary runner.  Did Zatopek really run intervals with his wife, Dana, sitting on top of his shoulders?  Once, but probably not more.  

Days before the 1952 Olympics, which would feature his unique performances, did he threaten to sit out the Games if the Czech authorities didn’t allow teammate Stanislav Jungwirth, a political apostate, to compete?
The first flight to Helsinki left with about one hundred athletes, but Jungwirth and Zatopek were absent.  A week later, following tense negotiations the government relented and both were on the second flight.  

Another much-told story involves the marathon and a mid-race discussion between world record holder Jim Peters and first timer Zatopek.  There have been many versions of the exchange, but the most authentic is that about half way through the 26.2 miles, the Czech is supposed to have asked, “Jim, the pace, is it too fast?”  Peters is said to have responded, “No, it has to be like this.”  Again Zatopek questions the tempo.  Peters, now a bit irritated: “Actually, it’s too slow.”  The Czech responded by increasing the pace, and his competitor fell back by ten seconds at twenty kilometers.  Zatopek went on to win by more than two minutes.  Peters was DNF.

More than a half-century later Askwith is persistent in pursuing the truth or getting as close to it as possible. One of his primary sources is Zatopek’s widow, Dana, in her nineties, who provided answers for the British journalist.

Emil and Dana Ingrova met briefly at an international meet in Belgrade, only to discover that they were born on precisely the same day, month and year, a delightfully romantic coincidence.  She was a national class javelin thrower, while he was building his international reputation on the cinders. They won gold medals minutes apart in l952 at Helsinki.   

The book’s title stems from the start of the l956 Olympic marathon on a stifling hot Melbourne day, at least 86 degrees, with Zatopek the defending champion.  Askwith recounts: “Emil was past his best by then and, to make things worse, was not fully fit and still recovering from injury.  He looked around with a grim smile. ‘Men, today we die a little.’” Zatopek finished sixth.

The years after competition were difficult and sad. Zatopek initially was a national hero and used by the Communist Party while serving in the military for many years. He lived in a country that would be invaded by the Soviet Union after the nation had sought political liberalization.

Before the Prague Spring in 1968 he sided with the more democratic elements of the Party, and the national hero was rewarded for his disobedience with brutal work in Czech uranium mines, collecting refuse and digging wells. “In the end, they broke him,” Askwith concludes. Later, as the reformer Vaclav Havel assumed the presidency once the Soviet Union imploded, Zatopek was rehabilitated and lived quietly in Prague with Dana to the end of his life in 2000 at age 78.

Askwith’s To Die A Little! is a well-written treasure for the distance running buff who wants to return to a largely forgotten era. Seventy pages of notes attest to the diligent research that went into the 377 pages of text. This biography is not the author’s first entry into the running genre. Feet in the Clouds, his book about fell running, was named one of the three best running books of all time by Runner’s World.  He also wrote Running Free, a personal take on running in the English countryside.

My Czechoslovakian mother never knew of her countryman’s triumphs. Sport was not part of her daily life. Betty Achilles (yes, her maiden name) came to the United States with her parents in 1930, settled in a Chicago suburb, started working at Western Electric Company, met my Irish father, and they married.  I was born in Brooklyn, and our family moved back to the Midwest when my father took a job with a Chicago printing company.  
From a western suburb I commuted into the city and discovered the sport where I survived, often enough, dying more than a little.

Like the Bullet Train, today’s distance runner elites are sleeker and faster, typified by the exploits of Mo Farah, surely destined to join the Nurmi to Bekele pantheon.  The Czech Locomotive’s timetables were comparatively slower, but they remind us that it is not just the journey, but also the destination.

Paul O’Shea is a lifelong participant in the track and field world, as competitor, coach and journalist.  After retirement from a career in corporate communications, he coached a girls’ cross country team and was a long-time contributor to Cross Country Journal. He now writes for Once Upon a Time in the Vest from his home in northern Virginia, and can be reached at Poshea17@aol.com.

We didn't want to mix the photos in with Paul O'Shea's wonderful review, so now here are a few pictures from another book Zatopek in Fotographien a German publication. Thanks to John Cobley (racingpast.ca) for letting me borrow his copy. Credits for pictures are below. A number of them are by Eastern bloc photographers in those days and were probably part of the progaganda machine that was extolling the joys of the socialist state. Another interesting part of the Zatopek story is the history of the Bata Shoe factory, a Czech enterprise that survived the Communist takeover and thrives today as a multinational corporation. Plenty can be found about it on Wikipedia. GB
High School/ Trade School yearbook photo.
The caption reads  "Later he worked in the factory in Zlin and visited the vocational school 

One of his early races

Always looking for an opportunity to find a training site, he is working out in a riding school stable.

"As he progressed he was gaining knowledge of the importance of tactics and changing gears duing his races."

Close up of what appear to be his training shoes.  Tennis anyone?

Racing the Hollander Slikhuis

Dana and Emil boarding the plane for Helsinki

Wedding Day

Helsinki 10,000?

Hitching a Ride on a Fast Freight

The night before a race in Ostrava, Emil calculated his splits to the tenth of a second.

Followed by Schade, Chataway, Mimoun, Pirie in the 5000 at Helsinki

Running with the Swede Gustav Jansson.  Emil would win in 2:23.03, Jansson third in 2:26.07.  

The Olympic Gold Medal Couple

With his Parents

Post Race or Training Maintenance.    Goon squad in the back?

Looking somewhat Kerouacian

The famous winter training.  Snow doesn't look quite so deep this day.
Photos above are made by the above photographers and appear in the book below
"Zatopek in Fotografien"

Two more of my favorite photos of Zatopek  are by Gerald Bloncourt a French photographer, poet, artist who has photographed  some interesting sports figures on his website earlier but which no longer appear there.  I got these from the Suddeutshc Zeitung Photo site.  They were taken at the cross country meet sponsored by the leftist newspaper in France  L'Humanite  known as  Le Cross de l'Humanite.

Obviously some party officials behind Zatopek, or maybe secret police keeping an eye on him.

Our good friend Geoff Williams in Victoria, BC added this to our posting.
Truly a wonderful piece.  I will be getting a copy of the book as soon as it is available.  ( one small addition)-the book “Zatopek in Fotografien” is actually mine and I lent it to John Cobley.  I received it in my twenties in London ( probably around 1957-8) as a gift  from a pen pal ( manager of a Czech soccer team ) that I corresponded with in Czechoslovakia for a few years .  That correspondence originated from a letter I wrote to World Sports after the 1952 Olympics when I objected to the fact that they commented on Pirie’s “failure” in 4th place in the 5K as compared with Bannister’s “success” in 4th place in the 1500m.  Some years ago I checked online to find that the book could be had for about $300!  As you know I also am the proud possessor of F. Kozik’s book “Zatopek the Marathon Victor” which Emil autographed for me at a London book signing.  ( also signed by Jim Peters who was sitting behind me).  Kozik also produced the above mentioned book.  I had earlier been to see Zatopek get beaten by Pirie and one other ( Norris?) over 5K at White City at the twilight of his incredible career.
As another sidebar I have been an email correspondent with Bob Phillips for a few years and mentioned my letter to World Sports and he says he likely saw it as he worked for them during that period.
No wonder we all love Athetics ( that’s English for Track and Field). 
Hope you are doing well.
Regards.  Geoff


Unknown said...

What a great article! It is fascinating to read about these pioneers in Athletics that helped elevate how we train today. These were fascinating times as well and I'm glad he was able to live the remainder of his life in what appears relative peace. Great post.

Bill Schnier said...

This was one of the best-ever entries into Once Upon a Time in the Vest. So many angles about an activity in which we just run around in circles.

V 11 N. 3 "Quicksilver: The Mercurial Emil Zatopek" by Pat Butcher, a Book Review by Paul O'Shea

When we come across books to review, we know that there is a particular skill set needed to be fair and honest and at the same time literary...