Book Review: “Today We Die a Little”

A Good Read About a Great Runner

As Czech athletes go, Emil Zátopek (1922-2000), is certainly among the most legendary. Using what were some very revolutionary training methods for the day, he dominated distance running events from the late 1940s to the early 1950s and became a household name at home and abroad for many more years beyond his competitive ones.

Between the 1948 Olympics in London and the 1952 Olympics in Helsiniki, Zátopek collected a total of four gold medals and one silver. His record as being the only athlete to win gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races as well as the marathon in a single Olympics, which he set in Helsinki, still stands today.

Aside of his gold and silver Olympic medals, he was also awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship.

Outside of his Olympic achievments, He won three gold and one bronze medal between the 1950 and 1954 European Athletics Championships which were held in Brussels, Belgium and Bern, Switzerland respectively.

Despite is accomplishments and accolades, life after sporting glory was not clear sailing for Emil and his wife, Dana.

Emil was very much in demand to make appearances at international athletics events throught the 1950s and 1960s. The Communist government of the former Czechoslovakia exptected that he would put forth a good face for the regime through such appearances; as Emil was also an army officer, there was a level of obligation impressed upon him to make such impressions.

Through his consistently friendly and smiling demeanour, Emil was seen as a good vehicle for the nation’s government to push forth their image of “Communism with a human face” to the rest of the world with.

However, Emil became very vocal against the government in the period leading up to the 1968 Prague Spring protests. He became very popular with the public as a famous voice to follow against the system.

Emil’s role as a rallying point was short lived and the public lost much faith in him as he seemed to do a quick about face in his views. No doubt his quick change of stance came from threats brought against him by both the government and the Czechoslovak secret police, the StB.

His apparent change of heart tarnished his public image for a long time. He was relieved of his army post and spent some time in meanial labour work as punishment for speaking out against the Communist government. For a period of his life, he was swept under the carpet and forgotten at home. However, people still spoke highly of him abroad.

With the fall of Socialism in 1989, Emil was “rehabilitated” by then president, Václav Havel, and some of the old tarnish that had plague Emil’s name at home through the 1970s and 1980s came off before his death in 2000.

Getting Into the Book

“Today We Die a Little” was written by British journalist and running enthusiast, Richard Askwith, and published in 2016. The book takes the reader through the whole of Emil’s life and gives a very thorough picture of not only the various stages of the man’s life, but also much about his charismatic personality and easy going demeanour.

The early part of the book focuses on Emil’s early life and Olympic glory. It feels a bit repetative in tone, but it works well to bring across the relentlessness of the training regime that Emil forced upon himself and his refusal to take excuses from himself in the pusuit of bettering his performance. Running trully was everything to him in that time period.

This section also shows the reader the very high value that Emil placed on sportsmanship and friendship. His easy going and friendly personality along with his willingness to encourage his competitors won him many life long friends and admirers in international circles.

Though he retired from competition in 1957, his sense of sportsmanship continued. He is quite famous for his act of gifting one of the gold medals he won in Helsinki in 1952 to Australian distance runner, Ron Clarke, in 1966. Clarke was in Prague for a race and was a guest of the Zátopeks. Despite his own hard training and dedication, a gold medal eluded Clarke in the 10,000 metre race at the 1964 games in Tokyo. Upon leaving Prague, Emil presented him with his own 10,000 metre gold medal from Helsinki and wrote “Because you deserve it” on the inside of the box that contained it.

The second part of the book follows the Zatopeks through the 60s, 70s and 80s. This period was marked a turn in the fortunes of the couple at home in both the eyes of the state and public.

Emil tended to speak his mind rather more than was safe given his position as a celebrity and as a member of the army. While the state and StB were able to scare Emil into keeping his tongue in check and getting him to seemingly switch sides to their favour and lose face in the public eye, it really was a case of him simply going through the motions. He was still quite against the Communist system and this came out when he was drunk. After being seen drunk and singing anti Communist songs, Emil was stripped of his army position and sentenced to hard labour in a remote part of the country.

This was a low point in Emil’s life as he was out of favour with the public and it was relatively easy for the state to sweep him under the carpet at home.

However, the state had to be a good deal more careful with Emil due to his still high status at the international level. With people from outside the country requesting his presence at athletic events and asking of his well being, the state could not overtly abuse him as they might other disidents and had to relent to allowing him to make appearances outside the country so he could be seen to be well.

Despite many attempts by foreign journalists to engage Emil in conversations about politics in such situations, he thoroughly avoided the subject.

The book finishes with Emil’s reputation and national interest in him being restored in the post Communist Czechoslovakia and Czech Republic.

An Author’s Accomplishment

Though I am not a big reader of biographies, I very much enjoyed this book and the well rounded picture it gives of Emil Zátopek.

Mr. Askwith has described this book as his most abitious to date and the extensive reference section at the back of the book bears out his dedication to making sure he had his facts right. Through extensive exploration of historical archives, personal diaries and interviews with Dana and other people who knew Emil best, the author has given us a tremendous portrait of his hero that is down to earth and largely without hyperbole which must have been tempting to include while compiling such a story.

Ultimately, Mr. Askwith has painted for us a picture of Emil Zátopek which shows the reader a gregarious and generous man who placed sportsmanship and friendship most highly among his personal values.

We also are shown a man of strong physical and psychological fortitude who pushed himself for self improvement off the race track as well as on it. Emil was a self taught polyglot who taught himself six languages through the course of his life.

This book is a very satisfying read even if biographies are not to your interests and I thank Mr. Askwith for going to the work of giving us this book.

These links will take you to more information about the book and author at the publisher’s and author’s websites respectively.

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1109422/today-we-die-a-little/

Today We Die A Little: Emil Zátopek, Olympic Legend to Cold War Hero (2016)

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