Today We Die a Little: a runner’s biography of Emil Zátopek, the greatest Czech runner of all time.

Richard Askwith, photo: David Vaughan

Richard Askwith is a well-known writer and journalist, but perhaps more than anything else he is a runner. In his native Britain he won a cult following with his book Feet in the Clouds, which maps his obsession with the strange and exhilarating sport of fell-running. His hobby left him well placed for writing a biography of the greatest of all Czech runners, Emil Zátopek, legendary for his will-power and endurance. Richard Askwith was in Prague recently to launch the Czech translation of the book, Today We Die a Little: Emil Zátopek, Olympic Legend to Cold War Hero. He spoke to David Vaughan.

Richard Askwith,  photo: David Vaughan
At the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki Emil Zátopek won gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres. At the last minute he entered the marathon and won that too. He became a legend, the greatest runner in Czechoslovakia’s history, and his open and gregarious personality only added to his popularity. But this high profile also exposed him to the politics of the time. He refused to endorse the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and this put him on a collision course with the country’s new leaders. Forced into manual labour, in the end he succumbed to political pressure. As a price for being left alone he withdrew some of his earlier criticism of the regime. He died in the year 2000, one of the best loved Czech sports personalities of all time. When I asked Richard Askwith how his interest in Emil Zátopek started, his answer came as no surprise.

“It began with running. I’d been a runner for decades, a recreational runner and not an especially good one, but I’m a very keen runner. It’s been an important part of my life. And if you’re a runner, especially of my generation, you know about Emil Zátopek. He was the patron saint of runners really. I was too young to see him race, but I remember hearing about him disappearing after the Prague Spring, and there was a certain romance about this amazing Czech figure. It always gave me an interest in Czech matters, but I never followed it up until about 2014, when I was asked to write a biography of Emil Zátopek. I’d written other books about running by then. I came to the Czech Republic for the first time at the end of 2014. I couldn’t speak a word of Czech apart from, ‘Do you speak English?’”

I was wondering about that, because obviously the first problem is the language barrier.

“That was the biggest initial problem, but I think in some ways that was rather good. The reason why I love Emil Zátopek and and felt inspired to write about him wasn’t just because he set eighteen world records and won five Olympic gold medals and transformed his sport with his achievements and his training methods – nearly all of which have now been superseded – but because he was a warm and incredibly generous human being in every sense. And not least I like the fact that despite not having very much education he was fluent in eight languages and dabbled in several others. He used to teach himself languages because he wanted to communicate with people.”

He turned to running more or less by chance, growing up in rural Moravia.

“There were many people from very poor backgrounds in those days. You didn’t run because it was a waste of shoe leather and sheer energy as well. There was work to be done. He came from a very poor background. When he left school – I think he was fourteen – he then went to work in Zlín in the Baťa factory. He worked there under the Nazi occupation, so he couldn’t go home to his parents and he had to work incredibly hard.

“He was initially made to run. The factory made him join the annual run through the streets of Zlín.”

This was during the German occupation.

Emil Zátopek,  photo: Roger Rössing,  Deutsche Fotothek,  CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
“This was around 1941. So he ran and he thought – if I’m going to run I’ll try to win. And he did very well. He came second. And I think subsequently he thought that running was an escape from all the drudgery and oppression of working in the factory.”

There are echoes of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner [the 1959 short story by Alan Sillitoe, later made into a film].

“In some ways yes, because running is an escape, but the odd thing about Emil is that he was a very gregarious person. A lot of top athletes are very blinkered in their outlook. They’re so focused just on me, me, me – winning, winning, winning. For him it was always about friendship, and he always wanted to make friends with athletes. That’s why he taught himself so many languages, so that he could communicate with them all. Some people found it quite irritating because he would never shut up, even in the middle of a race.”

He would talk during races!

“Not non-stop, but he would offer words of encouragement and things like that…”

… which I expect was rather distracting for the others!

“I guess some people felt he was just playing games with them, but I personally think he was just a very generous and friendly person. What’s so wonderful about researching his life is finding all these people who had known him in all sorts of different capacities. You get a sense that he’d left this trail of gratitude behind him, as he just spread kindness and friendship. I suppose that’s what made me feel I really needed to respond by trying to learn Czech. There’s so much generosity and hospitality surrounding his life.”

And what about Dana Zátopková his widow, who is still alive and in her own right was a great athlete?

“Dana was indeed a great athlete. She won gold in the javelin at the Helsinki Olympics, about an hour before Emil won the second of his three golds. There was always this rivalry, this wonderful electric relationship between them. They were always teasing one another. They used to train together often. She was so kind and helpful to me while I was researching the book. I spent hours and hours just sitting in her little flat. She would bring out the slivovice [plum liqueur] and start remembering things. She was still very much full of life, keeping the flame of Zátopek hospitality and friendship alive.”

And your book about Emil Zátopek has just come out in Czech translation, which is why you’re here in Prague. I should imagine that the reader you most wanted to like it was Dana Zátopková.

“I suppose so. I would have been very upset if she hadn’t liked it. I gave her a copy and eventually got a note back saying, ‘Thank you for writing such a strong and truthful biography of Emil.’ That meant an enormous amount to me. I wrote the book for English eyes really, and that was very different from writing for Czech eyes because the English reader I had in mind really knew nothing of this stuff, whereas Czech people reading the book might think – who’s this foreigner coming in and telling the story of our nation and our national hero – because the great thing about Emil Zátopek’s story is that it’s all interwoven with the story of Czechoslovakia in the twentieth century and all the glory and tragedy that that entails.”

I was thinking about that, because he reached his peak as an athlete at the time of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia. Then he suffered immensely after the Soviet invasion of 1968, because he refused to agree with it. And then he had a rather tragic drift into obscurity when he was just trying to keep his head above water.

“Yes. I think he was really just a good man. He wanted to run. He wanted to do what he did best. The communists made an icon out of him and really tried to turn him to serve their purposes. I think on the whole in his running years he managed to preserve his humanity most of the time and do the decent thing most of the time. My book begins with the moment just before the Helsinki Olympics when he really stood up to the regime and at one point even refused to go, which would have been very embarrassing to them. Once he’d retired from racing, he stood up to the Soviets in 1968 and then got thrown out of sport and thrown out of the army and disappeared into exile to work as a manual labourer, living in a ‘maringotka’ and working on drilling wells.”

You’ll have to explain to our listeners what a maringotka is…

“It’s like a little caravan, with three or four of them living in it.”

And when you say he went into exile, he didn’t go literally into exile, it was an internal exile.

“He wasn’t actually formally exiled – even internally. It was just that no one was prepared to employ him in Prague. You had to have a job, and one of the few companies that was prepared to employ someone like him was this drilling company that just used to go from place to place in really remote districts.”

I’ve always thought it is rather unfair how people have often pointed to the little compromises that he made at that time, making some overtures to the regime at the time of normalisation in the 70s and 80s.

“I think that they couldn’t have broken him, but they managed to manipulate him into retracting a bit and then retracting a bit more, and I think he himself sensed that he’d compromised. It’s interesting that with his running there was this thing that you never ever, ever give into pain. You can always endure more, you never surrender, you never quit, and that’s why he won so much. In this struggle with the regime – trying to survive in this miserable situation – I think he did surrender a bit and once he’d done that, he lost some of his self-respect, and that made it harder for him to stand up for his beliefs subsequently. He ended up in a bit of a mess, feeling a bit sorry for himself.”

What does his widow say about that time?

“She feels that they were both, but especially Emil, treated very cruelly and with enormous ingratitude after all the good things he’d done. She was aware that former friends used to cross the road to avoid them and that sort of thing. She said that the authorities just wanted to shut them up and put them in a drawer.

“She wanted Emil to be a bit more sensible, and I think he eventually was. Their obscure later years together were generally very happy and warm, just living quietly with a small circle of friends, being nice to people, staying out of public affairs and trying to live as best they could.”

You’re a runner, a very enthusiastic runner, and you’ve also written books about running, particularly fell-running, which is your great passion. In what ways is Emil Zátopek an inspiration to you as a runner?

“The image that most of us in the west had of him in decades gone by was of this guy who was extremely tough, not just physically tough, but mentally tough. He used to train in his army boots, he used to train in the snow, the dark, in sand, whatever it was. Is it raining? Is it snowing? So what! I’ll go out and train. If you do it once, you feel pain. If you do it a thousand times, it means nothing.”

In the book there is the quote, “Today we die a little.”

“He said that at the starting line of a marathon, speaking in English to the American runners who he had just made friends with. He said, ‘Gentlemen, today we die a little.’ It was a sort of graveyard humour. He was a very humorous man, and he spoke almost in paradoxes that were both fun and quite profound. There is a Czech phrase, ‘Když nemůžeš, tak přidej’ - if you can’t keep going, go faster – which doesn’t make any more sense than ‘today we die a little.’ How can you die a little? The extremes of pain and endurance when he ran are very much to do with being so close to death that that’s the moment when you’re most alive.”

I’m also a runner, but a rather bad and ungainly one. Whenever I see old footage of him, waving his head all over the place, with the most bizarre technique, I find it quite reassuring.

“Yes, it was always a running joke with Zátopek that he ran is such an ugly way. Sports writers used to compete with coming up with different things to say: ‘He runs like a man who has just been stabbed in the heart,’ ‘he runs as if there were a scorpion in each shoe,’ ‘he runs as if tortured by internal demons, as if he might be having a fit,’ ‘he runs like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt.’ All these things. And he said, ‘Yes, I’m not talented enough to run fast and smile at the same time. In fact, below the waste, if you watch his legs running, he was beautifully economical. But you did get a feeling, watching him, that you could sense his suffering. He didn’t look like a man just running so efficiently that it didn’t even look like an effort.”

In terms of writing the book, your own experience of having been there, running up a mountain in snow, when it’s windy, cold and wet, really forcing yourself to keep going, must have helped you in identifying with him.

“I suppose it helps if you know what it’s like to suffer when running…”

… and the great euphoria at the end…

“… and the euphoria at the end. The great thing about running is that the slow runner knows about pain just as the fast runner does. You just experience your pain at a slower pace.”

Is there one moment from Emil Zátopek’s life that is most inspiring for you?

“In the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 he won three gold medals. The middle one, the 5,000 metres, was the most difficult. He was up against a very strong field of runners, some of whom were faster than him. At the previous Olympics, he’d blown the 5,000 metres. He’d been beaten by half a pace because he’d misjudged it. He really, really wanted to win it. He had this plan, which he had worked on for the previous four years, every day. He reckoned he’d done about forty thousand fast 400 metre laps, thinking that he was just going to blow them away at the last lap with a 400 metre sprint at the end.

“You get to the last lap and the plan that he’s been dreaming of for the last four years kicks into action; he soars into the lead for about a hundred metres, and the next thing you know, he’s passed – and another runner passes – and another runner passes. And suddenly, coming down the back straight, his plan is in ruins. He’s coming fourth. The other three are going away from him. What do you do? Any normal person would despair at this point, and somehow, instead of despairing, he remains cool. He thinks they’ve panicked and gone too soon. I can still beat them. I’m not going to give up. He claws his way back, and then on the final bend it’s just pure willpower. He says – I could see the medal – and he looks like a deranged insect, clawing ground. It’s just so exciting. And somehow he just blows the others away and wins by a decent distance in the end.”