Will it be third time lucky for Times man Rick Broadbent with his wonderful story of the magnificent runner Emil Zátopek?


On the Shortlist

Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek

By Rick Broadbent (Wisden Sports Writing) £16.99

Review by Jon Culley

Emil Zatopek in action in the  5,000 metres in London in 1948
Emil Zátopek in action in the
5,000 metres in London in 1948
Rick Broadbent comes to the table with a bit of form, having been shortlisted twice before without convincing the judges he was worthy of the prize.  Having been unlucky with Ring of Fire in 2009 and That Near Death Thing in 2012, he switches from sport on two wheels to two legs, swapping motorcycle racing for distance running.

Emil Zátopek's world records have all been overtaken now but his status as the world's greatest long-distance runner, possibly the greatest athlete across all distances, remains intact.

Long before the cheats came along to rob athletics of its innocence and purity, Zátopek was causing crowds to look on with wide-eyed incredulity at what he was able to do.  At the peak of his powers, between 1949 and 1955, he set 18 world records at distances from 5,000 metres to 30,000m.

At the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 he won gold at 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon, a treble unlikely ever to be matched.  His times in all three events were Olympic records.

Ungainly running style

He was the first to run 10,000m in less than 29 minutes, achieving that particular feat in Brussels just 48 hours after becoming only the second to complete 5,000m in less than 14 minutes in Paris. He was also the first to run 20,000m in under one hour.

All this despite a running style that was visually bizarre and made him an instantly recognisable figure on the track even from the very back of the deepest grandstands.  His head rocked, his arms flailed, his tongue hung out of his mouth; yet in contrast with his ungainly top half, below the waist his legs were like rhythmic pistons, working as hard and as fast as he commanded them.

The Emil Zátopek story would be a compelling one for his achievements alone yet there is another thread to it, one that has not been explored fully until now, surrounding the politics of revolution and suppression of Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s, the liberalisation movement known as the Prague Spring that was eventually halted only by a Soviet invasion.

Zátopek was a member of the Communist party and a soldier in the Czech military and as such was sometimes accused of being a puppet of the Czech government yet after protesting against the arrival in the capital of Soviet tanks he was arrested, stripped of his ranks and sent into exile, obliged to take a succession of physically demanding and dangerous jobs in the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the country.

Extensive interviews

He disappeared essentially for two decades, dismaying those for whom he had become a political hero by renouncing the beliefs he had stood for in 1968, although it seems likely he was coerced into doing so under the threat of imprisonment.  Only when communism collapsed in 1989 was he allowed to return home and begin again a normal life.

Zátopek's widow, Dana, now aged 94, pictured in 2014
Zátopek's widow, Dana, now aged 94, pictured in 2014
Times journalist Broadbent attempts to find the missing elements of the story in a compelling, superbly written narrative, drawing on extensive interviews with many whose lives he touched, including his widow, Dana, an Olympic champion javelin thrower he married in 1957 yet from whom he spent so many years apart.

There is considerable eye-witness evidence, too, that Broadbent has pulled together from the documented accounts of contemporaries long departed, which he uses with great skill to paint a picture of Zátopek as a man as well as an athlete.

Endurance survived the cut where another book about the same subject, Richard Askwith's Today We Die a Little, did not progress from longlist to shortlist.  Some say it must have been a close-run thing but having made the final selection there is no arguing that Rick Broadbent does not deserve his chance to be third time lucky.

Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek, by Rick Broadbent (Wisden Sports Writing) £16.99

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith

Also shortlisted: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan (Corsair)

Also shortlisted: Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Also shortlisted: Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - lost genius of Manchester United's golden generation (Quercus)

And then there were seven - the full shortlist for the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016: the longlist in full

(Picture credits: Emil Zátopek courtesy of the Swedish Olympic Committee; Dana Zátopková by David Sedlecky via Wikimedia Commons)



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