Once Upon a Time in the Vest

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

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.  Our eyes and hearts turn to Paul O'Shea for that task.  Here is Paul's latest review on a superb book about a superb athlete:  The Mercurial Emil Zatopek by Pat Butcher.       George Brose ed.   

The Zatopek Bookshelf Is Nearly Full

 A Book Review

 By Paul O’Shea


The following conversation could have taken place recently.

 Tereza had just gotten home to their Prague apartment after her writing group session where writers exchanged memoir drafts and new project ideas. “Tomas,” she tells her husband, “we were just kicking around potential subjects, and my friend Olga said: ‘We haven’t had a new biography of Zatopek in almost five years. Tereza, you know about him, your parents saw him run, he’s a national treasure. Why don’t you write a new biography?’

 “Tomas, what do you think?”

 I have a suggestion for my mythical Tereza. We probably have gleaned all we can from books about the life of Emil Zatopek, athlete extraordinaire, national hero, icon. No need for another life story.

 In 2016, three biographers each published their account of the Czechoslovak immortal. The books and their authors: Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zatopek, by Rick Broadbent. The second: Today We Die A Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zatopek, The Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time, by Richard Askwith. The third: Quicksilver: The Mercurial Emil Zatopek, by Pat Butcher.

 Collectively, these works bring to life one of the sport’s three most famous brands—Bannister, Bolt, Zatopek.

 I reviewed Askwith’s Today We Die A Little! for Once Upon a Time in the Vest four years ago.  I found it “a well-written treasure for the distance running buff that wants to return to a largely forgotten era.” You can retrieve the review here.  Once Upon a Time in the Vest

 For those who need more Zatopek, if you haven’t read the Broadbent or Askwith entries, Pat Butcher’s Quicksilver: The Mercurial Emil Zatopek (209 pages, $34.09, Amazon) is a valuable addition, highly recommended.  You may also acquire this book by ordering directly from Pat Butcher, signed to the buyer for $24.99 (incl post) at   https://www.globerunner.org/books/

To be sure, these weren’t the only books published about him over the years. BBC Radio athletics commentator, Bob Phillips, wrote Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek! in 2002. There is a 2009 novel, titled Running, by French author Jean Echenoz. Zatopek, a graphic novel, the work of Jan Novak, appeared last year.

Butcher’s Quicksilver is richly researched, comes alive on virtually every page as the author interviews coaches, friends and competitors.  He makes extensive use of the Zatopeks’1960 co-autobiography, As Told By Dana and Emil, having had it translated from the original Czech. The book is not available in English, unfortunately.

Pat Butcher combines his own impressive track and field resume with a premier journalism career.  The Brit’s PRs, set in the nineteen-seventies are marks of 3:49.6 for 1500 meters, 4:09.4 for the mile, and 14:30.2 for five thousand meters. In 35 years Butcher’s byline has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, Financial Times, GQ, and major UK publications. He wrote and produced documentaries for the BBC.

He is also author of two other books, one about the Coe-Ovett rivalry (The Perfect Distance), the other, The Destiny of Ali Mimoun, the Algerian-born Frenchman who won the l956 Olympic marathon.  National-class runner, world-class writer.

 "If I couldn’t run like Emil Zatopek, the next best thing was to write a book about him," Butcher says about the book’s genesis. He travelled throughout the Czech Republic, talking to Zatopek’s training partner and coach. Butcher met with the Zatopeks, interviewing Emil two years before his death in 2000. He even had access to the Czech government’s secret police files about Zatopek, who was a thorn in the side of the Communists while at the same time a symbol of its athletic excellence.

Pat Butcher 
photo by nancyhoney.com

When histories of our sport are written decades down the road, Zatopek’s achievements will still be cherished.  Foremost is the 1952 Olympic Gold Medal Triple when he won the five and ten (failing only in a five thousand heat to finish first), wrapped up with the marathon victory where he defeated world record holder Jim Peters. All were Olympic records. Zatopek’s first Olympic win came four years earlier when he beat Belgium’s Gaston Reiff.    

The l952 Olympic win in Helsinki has been called the finest race ever run by Zatopek, archived by the photo of the Czech leading Alain Mimoun and Herbert Schade, while Chris Chataway lay crumpled on the track. Fourth entering the final turn, Zatopek mounted what later could be called a Billy Mills sprint to the finish, winning by less than a second. 

The Czech might have won more major medals but IAAF Worlds were still a gleam in the eye of national governing bodies and their corrupt bureaucrats. 

Sprinkled through his world-class decade of 1946 to 1956 were eighteen world records. He was the first runner under twenty-nine minutes for ten thousand meters, the first to run twenty kilometers in less than an hour. Runner’s World named him the Greatest Runner of All Time, in 2013. 

Butcher tells us about this runner who probably trained and competed excessively. Zatopek was one of the first to explore interval training. The competitions took place in the midst of a training regimen notorious for its punishment. Sessions of eighty to a hundred repeats of 400-meter runs, sometimes several in a day were routine.  In one two-year period he raced 32 five thousands and 18 ten thousands. No rest for the successful. 

In his visits to the Czech Republic Butcher spent hours with Dana, who we are charmed to learn won the javelin competition just after her husband was winning Olympic gold in ’52. That seemed ordained: Dana and Emil shared the same birthday, September 19, 1922.  “We could get married on the same day, too,” he dryly told her. The book is dedicated to Zane Branson, manager, runner and Butcher’s close friend. Branson died suddenly of a heart attack in Iten, Kenya in 2015.

The British author recounts Zatopek’s political stubbornness in the face of the Russian invasion of the country. A member of the Czech Army, he was forced to join the Party. For criticizing the Soviet Union’s l968 takeover he was deprived of his colonelcy and Party membership and exiled for four years. The four-time Olympic champion was forced into a series of menial jobs including picking up trash and working in uranium mines.

 One of the well-known anecdotes revealing Zatopek’s generosity and empathy involved another running legend, Ron Clarke. Though he was a multiple world record setter, the Australian never won Olympic gold, although he was the favorite in several of the races.

 In 1966 Zatopek invited Clarke to a meet in Prague.  Before Clarke boarded the plane for the return to Australia, the Czech handed him a small package, saying, “Not out of friendship, but because you deserve it.”  Uncertain about its contents, he waited until mid-flight to open the gift.  Inside was Zatopek’s 1952 Olympic gold medal for his win at ten thousand meters.

 Gracing Quicksilver’s cover is Zatopek’s photo, arms and hands punching an invisible opponent, the runner’s glistening, grimacing face above a vest with stop-sign numbers. We can imagine the galumping stride, the locomotive’s connecting rods driving the carriage irrevocably forward. “I wasn’t smart enough to smile and run at the same time.”

 The gregarious and cosmopolitan athlete (he spoke eight languages) might be amused today to see the number of books about him available at the library, not just because of national pride, but also because he deserved it.  


Paul O’Shea’s grandmother and mother were skilled at preparing Czech recipes that included duck and pork roasts, knedliky, strudel to finish. And the fruit dumplings, the fruit dumplings… see (The Spruce Eats) for Knedliky recipe, by Barbara Rolek


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.

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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...