Monday, October 22, 2018

Review: Endurance (2016)

By Rick Broadbent

There's no way to determine the identity of the greatest long-distance runner in history. However, if you were going to magically bring the contenders together for a race, Emil Zatopek would be on the starting line.

He was that good. Don't discount his chances of beating all comers from all time periods, head to head.

Zatopek won four gold medals in his career, three of them coming at the 1952 Olympics. They came in the 5,000-meter run, the 10,000-meter run, and the marathon. It's safe to say that no one will ever do that again.

That clearly is an athletic career worth celebrating, and British author Rick Broadbent gets the story on paper in good order with his book, "Endurance." What makes this book particularly interesting is that Zatopek lived in a particularly volatile time in European and Czech history.

Zatopek was born in 1922, but didn't compete in his first race until 1941. Therefore, he wasn't an adult during Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia or the start of World War II. But when new, tougher leadership arrived in that part of the world in 1942, it affected everyone. Zatopek wound up in the army, where he actually could find time to do plenty of training, while his coach, Jan Haluza was held for years on suspicions of having subversive political views. The stories of how Haluza was tortured are some of the most painful and memorable in the book.

Meanwhile, Zatopek followed the relatively new training method of fartlek - also known as running intervals, which meant he'd run a certain distance at a given speed, take a break, and run it again. It's fair to say that no one ran with more determination and will power than Zatopek. Naturally, he didn't have many chances to test his skills against others as long as war was taking place.

In 1945, Germany was finally defeated and Europe looked forward to returning to normal life. But Czechoslovakia is one of those countries that has often been in the way of the expansion plans of more powerful neighbors. In this case, the vacuum left by Germany's demise was quickly filled by those from the Soviet Union, spreading an Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe. Life for the Czechs was just as repressive under the Communists as it had been under the Nazis. 

While most Czechs weren't allowed to leave the country for any period of time, Zatopek was good enough to serve as something of a propaganda tool for the government. He went to London for the 1948 Olympics, and won a gold and a silver medal. That established him as one of the great athletic heroes in his nation's history. Adding to the story was the fact that his wife, Dana, was also an Olympic athlete.She would later win a gold medal in the javelin toss.

From there, the Emil Zatopek legend only grew. The world records started to come in 1949. In one race in 1951, Zatopek set world records in three different areas - 10 miles, 20,000 meters, and one hour (furthest distance covered in the time period). That set up his performance in the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, which moved him into new heights of glory. Zatopek finished his career with 18 world records, with the last of them coming in 1955.

If his slow decline due to age was the end of the story, Zatopek would have had an interesting enough life. But politics added a postscript to the story in 1968. That was the year of the "Prague Spring," when the Czechs tried to gain a little freedom from Soviet domination. One of those Czechs was Zatopek, who signed his name on something of a petition asking for reform in his home country. Some brief feelings of hope were raised among the population, only to be crushed with Soviet troops came charging into Czechoslovakia in 1968. The legendary runner lived out the next 20 years or so as something of a non-person, as the government tried to bury his reputation. It took until 1989 and the Velvet Revolution for Zatopek to return to fame, although a generation had almost passed by then.

Broadbent certainly did his research here. He talked to Dana at length, and interviewed many others about Zatopek and the people who were part of the track and field scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I'm not sure how much Zatopek's personality comes across here - he comes off as a polite, friendly and nice man who is very single-minded about running - but the background story is compelling enough to keep you turning the pages.

Let's put it this way - if an American checks out the sports section of a Prague book store, there are three recognizable names: Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr and Emil Zatopek. "Endurance" brings the oldest one of the three back from the past.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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