Bloomsbury (2016), 320 pages
Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek is a great biography of one of the world’s greatest distance runners. Endurance’s strength lies not only in Broadbent’s retelling of Zátopek’s life story but also in the author’s painting of the historical and personal background to the great runner’s life.
Zátopek lived through World War II and the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Zátopek was a socialist and his ability to train as an athlete while a member of the army helped his progress. Broadbent also shows the dark side of communism as many Czech individuals suffered as badly under communist rule as they did under Nazi occupation. For most of his career Zátopek trained without a coach and was one of the first athletes to use interval training on a regular basis. Zátopek’s gregarious and generous personality was seen as an antidote to the enigmatic “Flying Finn” Paavo Nurmi and the more restrained upper class British runners. Zátopek’s presentation of one of his Olympic gold medals to the Australian runner Ron Clarke is perhaps the best well known example of his generosity.
Zátopek’s use of (often brutal) interval training methods set him apart from his contemporaries. He seemed to be in tune with his body at a time when some top athletes engaged in dangerous (and in modern terms almost comical) pre-race practices such as not drinking water or eating enough. Tactically Zátopek knew when to pace himself and when to put the hammer down.
Broadbent does raise the moral ambiguity of Zátopek’s relationship with his only coach Jan Haluza. Haluza was jailed by the StB (the Czechoslovakian secret police) and it is possible that Zátopek could have done more to help his former mentor. However, Zátopek, although a socialist, was not a mindless ideologue. His value to Czechoslovakia on the international stage enabled him to resist overt meddling in athletics by the State. During the Prague Spring in 1968 Zátopek actively opposed the Soviet invasion and made anti-Soviet broadcasts for a resistance radio station. It is easy to be critical of Zátopek but he was faced with political and moral dilemmas that most modern athletes (or indeed most people) never have to grapple with.
Of course Zátopek’s times are slower than contemporary athletes but his physical strength (at 72kg he was a lot heavier than the modern African runner), mental toughness, unique training methods, and ultimately, his moral character set him apart from most athletes. Zátopek is the only person to win the 5,000m, 10,000m, and the marathon in the same Olympics – a feat that will possibly never be equalled. He also broke 18 world records (including eight in the space of six weeks in 1951!) and won a total of nine major athletics medals.