Today We Die a Little! The Inimitable Emil Zatopek

Today We Die a Little by Richard Askwith

Today We Die a Little! By Richard Askwith

Today We Die a Little! tells the story of the greatest Olympic runner of all time. In 1952, Emil Zatopek stunned the world by dominating the 5,000m, the 10,000m and the marathon in Helsinki, Finland. He earned three gold medals in the space of nine days. Zatopek set 18 world records, won 5 Olympic medals, and for six straight years nobody could beat him in a 10,000m race.

Zatopek’s training methods pushed the boundaries of human suffering and redefined the sport of distance running. He trained in isolation and developed brutal workouts consisting of 20, 30, 40, and even 80, 400m repeats in a single day. Each repeat was run as fast as possible, followed by a 150-200m recovery jog. He ran in the snow, the mud, and the rain. Zatopek wore his heavy military boots rather than his running shoes because they offered him more resistance and extra protection on slippery, uneven surfaces.

Emil Zatopek, Today We Die a Little
1952 Olympics, 5,000m  – Helsinki, Finland

He was always experimenting and looking for improvements. He tried eating the leaves of birch trees to see if it would help him run like a deer. He once ran with a child on his back to see if it might help him become stronger. And, if he couldn’t make it outside, he’d run in place for hours at a time.

“What you do when the stadium is full is important. But, what you do when the stadium is empty is a thousand times more important.”

Zatopek wasn’t a natural runner. He ran in a contorted, spastic movements with arms flailing and his tongue hanging out. Sportswriters said he looked as if he was ‘wrestling an octopus on a conveyor belt’ or ran ‘like a man who has just been stabbed in the heart.’ Zatopek laughed at the criticisms and said “I am not talented enough to run and smile at the same time.”

His tortured running form only made his victories more spectacular. Step by painful step, he would embrace the suffering and triumph knowing that he was the toughest runner on the track. Spectators responded with fervor and chanted “Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek!” as his legs ceaselessly carried him to another victory.

“When you can’t keep going, go faster.”

Emil Zatopek was a soldier. His brilliant success on the track made him the de facto face of communist Czechoslovakia during the Cold War period. His victories on the oval were impressive, but his generosity of spirit and his exemplary sportsmanship made him a hero. Zatopek and his wife, Dana Zatopkova, a gold medalist in the javelin, captured the hearts of people across the world. Their popularity soon became a propaganda tool for the Czechoslovakian military, and they found themselves walking a fine line between puppet and prophet.

Emil Zatopek kisses wife Dana
Emil kisses Dana after winning the 1952 Olympic Marathon in Helsinki, Finland

It was this entanglement of personal beliefs and professional conduct that resulted in the immediate and unexplained disappearance of Emil Zatopek on the late 1960’s. He became an itinerant labourer, living in a caravan, far from his home and his beloved Dana for many years as punishment for defying the communist party in the Prague Spring of 1968. After his ‘rehabilitation’ he came back to Dana, but he never quite recovered from the ordeal.

Today We Die A Little! explores the remarkable life of Emil Zatopek from his humble beginnings to his Olympic glory. You’ll learn the secrets of his training, relive his biggest races, and understand why he is considered by many to be the best there ever was. The latter half of the book reveals Zatopek’s extraordinary role as soldier and citizen of Czechoslovakia, and his personal struggle to find happiness in a quiet life as an old man.

As Emil Zatopek and forty-five others lined up to start the Olympic marathon in 1956, he was already past his prime and recovering from a recent hernia operation. The temperatures in Melbourne, Australia were in the low 90’s that day. He knew a medal was unlikely, but suffering was a certainty. With a grim smile he looked at the other runners and said, “Men, today we die a little.”

I this book from the publisher for review.

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