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Today We Die a Little

zatopekReview by Ben Peel

Richard Askwith, author of Feet in the Clouds and Running Free, has now written a biography of the legendary long distance Czech runner Emil Zatopek who set numerous records, won three gold medals at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 and whose at the time unorthodox training methods are now accepted as commonplace.

However he also lived during a tumultuous period of European history when Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Nazis, then became a Communist state, then after the wall came down a democracy and finally peacefully divorced itself into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

As the poster boy of the Army and his country Zatopek was faced with a lot of conflicting demands but unlike many of his compatriots had a relatively easy time living in a totalitarian regime and his running also allowed him to travel.

After he retired from running he remained with the Czechoslovakian army but denounced the putting down of the Prague Spring in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled in leading to the protest death by self immolation of Jan Palach in Wenceslas Square.

His fame protected him to a certain extent for a while but in a Communist regime he eventually had to be made an example of and was sentenced to internal exile which effectively broke him.

The extent to which he collaborated with the State will probably never be fully known but Askwith convincingly argues that if he did then it was only ever reluctantly, half heartedly and in an obfuscating manner. Unless one has lived under such a system then there is no way of knowing how one might have behaved when put under pressure to inform on friends and neighbours.

For Askwith Zatopek turns out to be a flawed not flawless hero but all the more interesting for it as his running achievements and generosity of spirit especially towards fellow runners far outweighs his all too human faults and foibles.


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