The Zatopek Bookshelf Is Nearly Full
The following conversation could have taken place recently.
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.
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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.
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.
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