“Running”: a great Czech athlete inspires a French novelist


Anyone interested in the history of athletics will have heard of Emil Zátopek, the greatest Czech long-distance runner of all time. His life story is the subject of a short novel by the Prix Goncourt winning French writer, Jean Echenoz, called simply “Running” – “Courir” in the original French. The book is an account of the life of an athlete whose quiet, determined attitude towards his sport contrasted with the complex political dramas going on around him in mid-20th century Europe. David Vaughan looks at the book and at the life of Emil Zátopek.

Photo: New Press
On my less-than-regular runs through our local park, I have never managed ten kilometres in less than about fifty minutes. In 1951 Emil Zátopek was the first person to cover more than twice that distance in an hour. In the course of the late 1940s and 50s he was virtually unchallenged as the fastest man on the planet between five and thirty kilometres. There are several recordings of Zátopek in the Czech Radio archives, including one of him speaking just moments after winning the 10,000 metres at the Helsinki Olympics:

“It was really tough,” he says, although he scarcely even sounds out of breath, “I didn’t think I was on top form, and the competition was impressive. But in the end I’m delighted and I think we’re all pleased that we’ve got another victory for our republic.”

In fewer than 150 pages, Jean Echenoz tells the story of Zátopek’s life and career. The book is low-key, the prose simple and understated, contrasting enormously with the hyperbole we normally associate with sports biographies. But this is no sports biography and Zátopek needs no hyperbole. Nor do the times he lives through: the wartime occupation, the Stalinism of the early 1950s, the thaw of the 60s and then the Soviet invasion of 1968.

Here is an extract from near the beginning of the book. The young Emil is working as an apprentice in the Baťa shoe factory in Zlín and is reluctantly co-opted into a running race aimed at promoting the company.

He loathes sport in general, anyway. You could almost say he looks down on his brothers and pals who spend their spare time kicking a ball around like idiots. When they force him to play the occasional game, he does so grudgingly, clumsily, hasn’t a clue what the rules are. Even while feigning interest, he looks off into the distance, trying discreetly to avoid the ball, the trajectory of which he can never figure out. And if the thing unfortunately lands at his feet, Emil gets rid of it with a huge kick in any direction at all, and all too often towards his own team’s goal. So, the Zlin run, Emil couldn’t care less about it, participates only under duress, tries hard to get out of it, but in vain. […] He’s got to run. Fine, he does. Emil is all the less inclined towards sports in that he has inherited his firm antipathy for physical exercise from his father, who considers it a sheer waste of time and – above all – money. A footrace, for example, now that’s really the cream of that crop: not only is it perfectly useless, Emil’s father points out, but it also requires the repeated resoling of shoes beyond what is strictly necessary, thus straining the family budget.

Emil Zátopek, photo: Roger Rössing, Deutsche Fotothek, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
This passage is typical for the book as it builds up a picture of Zátopek as a very ordinary young man, gentle, good natured, certainly not interested in politics, and initially not even in sport. But he proves to have a gift for running that is so exceptional that once he starts winning in spectacular fashion, some observers begin to suggest that there is something not quite normal about his lungs or heart. But no, Echenoz writes, the doctors confirm that Emil is “a normal man” and the leaders of Czechoslovakia’s new regime confirm that he is “a good communist”. After all, this is the later 1940s. One thing that clearly is exceptional is Zátopek’s drive to win.

Zátopek became famous for his immensely taxing training routines; he would fight fatigue by pushing himself still further.

Emil walks along a lane lined with poplars on his way to the factory and back every day, which gives him a new idea. The first day, he holds his breath until the fourth poplar; the next two days, until the fifth; then the sixth, and so on every two days until he can finally get to the end of the lane without breathing. But once he gets there, he passes out. He passes out another time while taking a cold shower after twelve straightaways taken at top speed. He gives up such eccentricities but finds it all very interesting. He always wants to know how far.. .

At 25, Zátopek was chosen to represent Czechoslovakia in the 1948 London Olympics. He promptly won the ten kilometres and came second in the five. This was followed by a string of world records. Jean Echenoz describes each of his races. His pared down prose, often playing down the drama, is effective; the story speaks for itself, culminating in the spectacular triple gold of Helsinki.

There are runners who seem to fly, others who seem to dance, still others who look as if they were sitting on top of their legs. There are those who simply look as if they’ve been summoned and are hurrying as fast as possible. Emil, nothing like all that.

Echenoz captures the extraordinary running style of the runner nicknamed the “locomotive”.

Emil, you’d think he was excavating, like a ditch digger, or digging deep into himself, as if he were in a trance. Ignoring every time-honored rule and any thought of elegance, Emil advances laboriously, in a jerky, tortured manner, all in fits and starts. He doesn’t hide the violence of his efforts, which shows in his wincing, grimacing, tetanized face, constantly contorted by a rictus quite painful to see. [... ] and hunkered down between his shoulders, on that neck always leaning in the same direction, his head bobs along endlessly, lolling and wobbling from side to side.

Dana Zátopková, photo: Filip Jandourek
The novel does not diverge far from the story of Zátopek as a runner. His happy marriage to the javelin thrower and fellow Olympic gold medalist, Dana Zátopková, is given scant coverage. At the same time, Echenoz is diffident in the way he tracks the political developments that are run alongside and on occasions interfere with Zátopek’s career. In the end this is to the book’s advantage, as it avoids becoming polemical. This is not a book about how people suffered under communism, but political developments are always hovering in the background.

World champion: the reaction is immediate and he’s promoted to captain and then his troubles begin. Those in high places put their heads together: they definitely consider Emil living proof of the wonders of Socialism. In which case, they should keep him close to home, not waste him, not send him abroad too much. The rarer he is, the better. Plus, it would be too bad if while on one of those trips he were — on a sudden impulse — to cross over to the other side, the unspeakable side of capitalism and imperialism.

In fact, Zátopek never considered defecting. Through the 1950s he quietly towed the political line, and when the thaw came in the 1960s, he welcomed the changes with open arms. He was open and spoke six languages, although Echenoz has him remind us that this was not always to his advantage:

“Sometimes I regret my fluency in foreign languages.. .. It’s not good to know too many of them. You must always talk, always answer.”

To which the invisible narrator adds:

“Yes indeed, Emil.”

It was with the Soviet invasion of 1968 that his real difficulties began. Echenoz writes touchingly of how Zátopek, by now nearly 46, took part in the demonstrations against the occupation, and found himself being recognized in the crowd and asked to add to his voice to those condemning the invasion. The consequences are dramatic. Zátopek is dismissed from the party and from the army, he is banned from staying in Prague and finds himself working in menial manual jobs. But eventually he returned to the city.

After six years, the elder sister of socialism and her proxies in Prague, who had made a gardener of Alexander Dubček, decided to recall Emil to the capital with the idea of promoting him to the job of dustman. What a great idea, a way of humiliating him, but it soon turns out not to be such a good idea after all. To start with, as he passes through the streets of the city behind his cart with his broom, everyone recognizes Emil straight away and they go to their windows to cheer him […] No dustman in the world had ever been so acclaimed. From the point of view of those in power, this was a failure.

Emil Zátopek died in 2000, but his widow Dana is still going strong, now over 90. However, the book chooses not to cover the last decade of Emil’s life, the period since the Velvet Revolution. Instead it ends still in the grey days of “normalization”, with the communist authorities offering to leave Emil in peace, as long as he signs a document renouncing the so-called “errors of his past”. He was “wrong to support the counter-revolutionary forces and the bourgeois revisionists”. He is to affirm that “despite rumours to the contrary, he was never a dustman or a labourer”. And so on, and so on…

He signs, “in order to be left in peace”, as Echenoz puts it. He is pardoned, his purgatory is over and his is given a job in the basement of the state sports archive. “Well,” concludes Emil at the end of the book, “I’m sure I deserved no better.”

“Running” by Jean Echenoz is available in English in a translation from the French by Linda Coverdale, published in 2009 by The New Press in New York.