Book review: Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek

Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek
By Rick Broadbent
Bloomsbury (2016)

I'll be brutally honest. I didn't know who Emil Zátopek was before 2016. I'm not obsessive about athletics (lazily interested is more apt) so my understanding of games and competitors is pretty poor.

I'm not completely ignorant. I watch the Olympics and I'm partial to a bit of sport on the telly. I know who Roger Bannister and Chris Chataway are. But I'm fully aware of my limitations when it comes to sports knowledge. You don't want me on your team in a pub quiz.

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So what drew me to a biography on Zátopek? A couple of reasons. I'm fascinated by long distance running, and I'm equally fascinated by the Cold War. There's an element of endurance to both, in their different ways, so seeing them come together in Zátopek's life intrigued me.

Given my lack of sports knowledge, I didn't know who Rick Broadbent was either. Turns out he is a longstanding journalist at The Times and was Jessica Ennis' ghostwriter for her post-Olympic autobiography. This is his eighth book.

Broadbent's in-depth research is admirable, painting a detailed picture of most of Zátopek's life as Czechoslovakia's - and the world's - greatest runner of all time. He used a wide range of sources including personal interviews with Emil's wife, Dana, who was also an Olympian.

What I loved about this book was how Broadbent built such impressive context around our protagonist. With it you could feel the foreboding turn of events slowly simmering over the years, until it boiled over with the Russian invasion of 1968.

Other characters were brought into focus, bringing reflection on how so many lives can be interwoven within one man's lifetime. In particular I was drawn to Jan Haluza's own horrifying story of endurance on the regime's blacklist; Alain Mimoun's rise from outsider to national hero in France; and Britain's own Jim Peters, the optician from Hackney whose entire athletics career embodied the strength to rise from fall after fall.

Many of these people came together on the track, most notably the two Olympic Games in the 1950s. It was a melting pot of post-war recovery, east and west, reforming identities.

Zátopek's warm character, winning smile and genuine camaraderie seemed to break down walls in a time of suspicion and fear, loved by everyone the world over. Meanwhile his training methods, long before sports science and HIIT was a thing, revolutionised running.

For me, it was Broadbent's highly developed characters and the world they lived in that was so powerfully moving. So I was somewhat disappointed when events post-1968 lacked this intricate detail. Most of the book focuses on the 1950s and skips a decade to 1968 for the final chapters. He dedicates only 34 pages to the shocking change of fortunes for Emil, which were to leave an irreparable mark on this man's life.

Arguably, Broadbent went from having widely documented sources of Zátopek's global athletics career, to scraps of information from behind a dark, silent Iron Curtain. But I was crying out to understand more about the years of StB reports filed on Emil and Dana. The gossip, the rumour, the facts, the spying that was recorded. In such uncertain times we face today, it's more important than ever to recognise just how precious - and fragile - our freedom is.

WATCH: Zátopek wins 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon Gold at the Helsinki Olympics (YouTube link 1:45. Olympic channel not available to embed, sorry, but worth a look). 

BUY Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek by Rick Broadbent on Amazon.

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