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The Mercurial Emil Zátopek

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Every great long distance runner I have met during my time in international athletics, now stretching more than fifty years, has been an obsessive. The less perceptive demonstrate their obsession by the expedient of the hours of daily training that they dedicate to their favourite pursuit. The more perceptive, like Olympian Tim Johnston will freely admit, had it not been running, it would have been something else. Nor does it dissipate, at least not for some. Now in his mid-sixties, former 10,000 metres world record holder, Dave Bedford celebrated his partial withdrawal from the mundane tasks of the London Marathon office in 2014, by starting to run to work and back again, as he had first done as a teenager. “I had to stop,” he said, shaking his shaggy head dismissively over a pint in one of our favourite Hampstead watering holes. Before I could even ask, he explained with a shrug, “the old obsession”.

For someone who would work his way up to running one hundred laps of the track in just over a minute each, with a brief interval jog in between, all in the same day, the term ‘obsessive’ might have been coined expressly for Emil Zátopek. But he pulled every schoolboy trick he could muster to avoid running his first race as an adult. It was May 15, 1941. He was no longer a schoolboy, but an apprentice at the Bata shoe factory in Zlín, the birthplace, incidentally of such diverse ‘celebrities’ as British playwright Tom Stoppard (né Tomáš Straussler), and Ivana Zelníčková, aka Trump. The Bata apprentices, both from Zlín and the neighbouring towns’ satellite factories were so numerous that a whole social programme was dedicated to their well-being; which also served the beneficial purpose of satisfying the Nazi supervisors during this period that the youngsters were engrossed in something less dangerous than assisting the Resistance. On that score, Zátopek, in the co-autobiography with Dana, doesn’t shrink from recording the toll of weekly disappearances from the factory floor.

He also recalls the active life back home, including street races, of any country boy, making him fitter than the average youngster. But he doesn’t think it makes him any better than his peers at Bata, and he admits to a serious lack of interest. ‘I saw some boys from the dormitory ran faster than me so I knew my abilities didn´t mean a thing in this environment…. I wasn´t running anymore, I didn´t play football and I didn’t want to see the real athletic races. I didn´t even attend the Run Through Zlín, which was a (1400 metres) race organized especially for us…. I never even thought of trying it myself. Then an interesting thing happened to our dormitory…. I got a supervisor who told us everyone who wasn’t hurt had to run. The knee that I’d knocked in the factory started to hurt immediately. He told me to go to the doctor’s. But the doctor was a Bata man too, so he said I was healthy and could run. I didn´t want to ruin my non-running tradition that last year. When the race day came, I disappeared to the library before everyone started to get ready for the race. I opened my chemistry books and started reading, but began to think about the race – whether the boys were back yet or not…. All of the sudden there was the captain of our team who came to me, “Don´t you know you´re supposed to be at the start?”

‘There was no time to argue. I took my running shoes and before I got to the start line, I was warmed-up. You can imagine how annoyed I was. For so long I didn´t want to run, and now I looked like I was chicken. My supervisor gave me a dirty look. The thought of winning crossed my mind. He’d be so surprised! Does he know I ran as a little boy? Then the gun fired and off we went. Right from the start I ran with the leaders, and I even got ahead of them a little bit. It went really well. I tried to breathe a lot and maybe that was the reason why I didn´t feel tired. We were about half-way round when I started to feel tired…. (Honza) Krupička, started to speed up and he began to get away from me…. I put all my efforts into it, but I couldn´t catch Krupička. I finished second, defeated. Then I saw my supervisor standing near the finish line, and remembered my secret wish to win the race. But he turned to me with unexpected interest, “You’re Zátopek, right?” and before I had a chance to answer he told his colleagues: “There you go, that´s my boy! See the effort I put into them! What a great success, can you see?”

‘But was it really such a success to lose?’

Having won a fountain pen for this first effort, the following week Zátopek was told by his supervisor to select a team for a company relay competition. But when his colleagues let him down, the supervisor lost interest as quickly as he had found it the previous week. Another week later, without any demur by now, having evidently caught the running bug, Zátopek ran another company race, a 1500 metres in the Czech second city of Brno. He beat his first vanquisher Krupička, but lost to another local boy, ‘Slavík from Židenice’. But now he had a track time he could conjure with, four minutes, 21 seconds for 1500 metres. For a late teenager in wartime, who probably had not been properly nourished for years, this was a notable achievement. Before winter set in, and nobody ran in winter in Czechoslovakia in those days, not even international athletes, Zátopek got the opportunity to run and train with some of the established regional athletes.

He was hooked.

 

REVIEWS:

‘Pat Butcher is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable athletics writers around…. this is certainly the first biography of Zátopek – by my count the fifth so far – to tell the full story’ – Bob Phillips, Former BBC commentator and Editor of Track Stats.

‘There have already been two admirable biographies of Emil Zátopek published this year, and this third offering is of a similarly high standard of writing and research. Pat Butcher, a distinguished and long serving athletics journalist, has one clear advantage over the other authors…. in that he actually met the great man on a number of occasions, adding to his insight on the subject. Also, Butcher was a nationally ranked runner… Zátopek was always an inspirational figure for Butcher, but this is a warts-and-all profile, not afraid to be critical when appropriate.’
Mel Watman, Editor, Athletics International.

‘…draws on the author’s experience as both an athlete and an athletics journalist and includes some sharp political insight.‘ –  Huw Richards, The Guardian

‘A superbly well-researched and beautifully written account of an athletics legend’ – Jason Henderson, Editor, Athletics Weekly

‘A most delightful read, both informative and informal, yet at the same time intimate. Obviously written with great empathy for the main character and for his sport.’ – Basil Heatley, Olympic marathon silver medallist and world record holder.

‘(does) a wonderful job of acquainting the reader with the charismatic and colorful character behind the legend.’
Rich Benyo, Editor, Marathon & Beyond.

‘This is a valuable book for those who have read one of the more conventional biographies… it provides original material and gives a vivid picture of Emil Zátopek’s unique personality. Highly recommended.’   –  John Cobley, Racing Past

‘There are currently three biographies of Zatopek. This is unquestionably the best.‘ – Donald McGregor, Olympian and author.

 

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The Perfect Distance, Ovett & Coe: The Record Breaking Rivalry

‘A quarter of a century ago, Britain was a nation divided. It was not the split between those who loved the newly elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with a strange passion, and those who hated her with visceral contempt. It was the not the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. It was not the traditional rift between the north and the south. But it was all of those things, and more. It was Steve Ovett versus Sebastian Coe.’

Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe presided over the golden era of British athletics. Between them, they won three Olympic gold medals, two silvers and one bronze, and set seventeen world records. They were part of the landscape of the late 1970s and early 1980s, both household names, whose exploits were watched by millions. Before an age of video, satellite and digital television news channels. BBC and ITV evening news bulletins were often interrupted to accomodate their races live, and other breaking news of them.

The pendulum of success swung between the pair of them for over a decade, each breaking the other’s records, and memorably triumphing in each other’s favourite event, in their big showdown at the Olympic Games in Moscow, which boasted the largest viewing figures in history for an athletics event. Their names were, and will remain inextricably linked.

“… treading in his footprints, before the dust could settle there” – a Homeric rivalry.

 

Testimonials

“Outstanding” – Irish Times

“…the author brilliantly recaptures the dramatic tension between these two giants of the track” – Sunday Telegraph

“.. their fierce rivalry transformed their clashes at the Olympics into unmissable events”. – Economist

“A magnificent book” – El Païs

“If ever an athletics track was graced by geniuses, these were the pair. Hopefully this account of their long rivalry will soon be translated into French” – Libération

“Written as meticulously as the runners’ preparation or their record breaking rivalry on the track” – Observer

“A beautifully researched account” – Independent

“A superb book” – Athletics International

“A masterpiece” – The Winged Foot

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The Destiny Of Ali Mimoun

A Monograph on Alain Mimoun

“There were two railway bridges on the course; one was about a kilometre from the finish, and the other around 12 kilometres (seven and a half miles). I was out of it, I got to the bridge at 12 kilometres, and thought it was the one at one kilometre, I said to myself, ‘I’m Olympic champion’! But then I saw the road stretching out three kilometres ahead, and realised my mistake. It’s at points like that, if you’ll excuse the expression, that you need balls”.

Alain Mimoun’s life story is the stuff of legend. And if the story doesn’t measure up, he can embellish it into legend himself. Enlisting as a teenage soldier, he suffered acute hunger and freezing cold, escaped an explosive death on at least two occasions, was saved from amputation by a storm; and then when he began running, had to confront perhaps the greatest distance runner in history. But Mimoun’s persistence pays off. He finally wins an Olympic title at the age of 35.

Price, incl post & packing: GB/Ireland £4.99 – US/Other $9.99

GB – £4.99

US – $9.99