Article last updated on December 21, 2020
Anyone vying to call themselves a fan of running must learn about Emil Zátopek. But ask a few people about Zátopek, and you’re likely to get an eclectic mix of answers in return. Someone will tell you that he swept the distance running events at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Another will tell you that his radical and groundbreaking approach to training changed running forever.
But if you try to dig a little deeper, you might find that you come up empty. What kind of man was the runner who became one of the biggest sporting heroes on the global scene? Answers to a question like this have been hard to come by. Today We Die a Little! The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time is writer and running enthusiast Richard Askwith’s attempt to rectify this. With this book, he aims to chronicle the life, on and off the track, of one of his heroes.
The Story of Emil Zátopek
As with most biographies, Today We Die A Little starts at the beginning. And, as the book quickly reveals, there is nothing typical about Zátopek’s rise to the top. The furthest thing from a child prodigy, he was discouraged by his father from participating in sports at a young age. The reason? Because it would wear down his shoes too quickly.
Delving into how someone can develop from such a starting point into a sporting idol, Askwith delivers Zátopek’s story with passion and admiration seeping through each page. The details of how the most decorated Olympic runner rose to the top are spiced up by anecdotes testifying to the accuracy of the legend of Zátopekian self-discipline.
Many of the anecdotes that fill the pages come from the subject of the book himself. Recounted by fond friends or former adversaries, which are often one and the same, the book contains dozens of Zátopek’s own experiences. And it is through these incidents retold that Askwith manages to connect the reader with the spirit of Emil Zátopek.
As you turn the pages, an undeniable truth emerges. This story is not about a man who was born a great runner. It is the story of a great man who stumbled into running and used it as an outlet for his greatness. Despite setting no less than 18 world records throughout his career, his humanity is his lasting legacy.
Fall From Grace
The book mirrors Zátopek’s story as it becomes less enjoyable once his athletic prowess diminishes. While Askwith’s intentions are noble, the attempt to paint the full picture of Zátopek falls flat while covering the second half of his life. Diving into the politics behind the runner’s fall from grace, the story becomes too sanitised.
Much like Zátopek himself in his later years, the author appears too afraid of offending. The story feels drawn out, somehow, despite lacking the same attention to detail that characterised the first half. Hamstrung by his perceived mission as a biographer, the author spends an excessive portion of the book on irrelevant information. While Askwith may feel it necessary to try and determine whether Zátopek was good or bad, the book suffers as a result.
I would have preferred to see these pages dedicated to adding further detail to Emil Zátopek the runner. Topics that deserve closer examination are his training methods and how his approach changed the sport of running. A more granular look at his training, contextualised with the norms of the times, could have served well as a starting point.
A Worthwhile Read
Despite the shortcomings, Today We Die A Little more than holds its own. Askwith successfully conveys the spirit of Emil Zátopek. The book serves as a reminder of why we must safeguard the legacy of this towering giant of the sport of running. And, to Askwith’s credit, the book details why that legacy is about so much more than just gold medals and world records.
For more details about the book and how to purchase it, check it out on Goodreads.
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