Two weeks ago, I finished reading Today We Die A Little, a biography of Emil Zatopek, the Czech runner, and it seems appropriate, now I’m lying on my bed with my legs aching from today’s run, that I get round to reviewing it.
I have three favourite books about Czechoslovakia; The Good Soldier Svejk, Under The Frog, and now Today We Die A Little. Two of these are reliable ways to make me cry. With Under The Frog it’s a comic novel that turns tragic in the final chapters; likewise with Zatopek’s story the end has you welling up.
Viewed from today, as we approach the two-hour marathon, Zatopek’s times are rendered less incredible, but at the time his achievements, setting record after record and winning multiple medals at each Olympics were unprecedented. Today we have better nutrition, better equipment and tracks, and more understanding of physiology, which makes Zatopek’s abilities more remarkable. You only have to read about some of his interval training (sessions of 40 laps of the track as hard as possible) to understand what a phenomenon he was.
But it’s clear from the story that he wasn’t just a great athlete; there’s story after story of his good deeds to his fellow athletes, and his sincere belief (up until the Prague Spring) of the Communist project.
There’s an amazing quotation attributed to him, explaiming why he didn’t care about setting records; if they were the best he’d ever be, then he’d never surpass them, so why celebrate? And if he was going to break them in the future, why care for what they are now? Did some kind of Zen Buddhism make its way to middle Europe?
In the late 90s he was smeared as a collaborator with the old regime, and it’s clear was accusations hurt the author too, so attached by that point is he to his subject. It’s too long ago and too difficult to say what was really the truth now.
What made me cry as I read the final pages were the last days of Zatopek. In his 70s, bereft of his athleticism, and losing his mind, it’s a reminder of the inevitable mortality of all of us, and yet it seems supremely sad in the case of Zatopek. Is this because I’m growing older and more fearful of senescence? Is it because we assume the greatest among us shouldn’t suffer in this way, and so when they do it’s harder to handle? Who’s to say