There’s some banter flying around on social media this week following Sir Steve Redgrave’s tongue-in-cheek assessment of whether, as was suggested to him, he was the greatest Olympian of all time.
The man who won five consecutive Olympic rowing titles from 1984 to 2000 diplomatically asserted on Sky News that his fellow Brit Sir Chris Hoy, who won six cycling golds between 2000 and 2012, was ahead of him, before adding with a faint grin that that was why he was planning to announce his comeback at the age of 54.
In truth, you could make out a case for either man to be accorded that ultimate honour. But how about the rival claim of this contender? He won 10,000m gold and 5000m silver at the 1948 London Games and returned to the Olympic arena four years later in Helsinki where he won the 10,000m, the 5000m and - even though he had never run the distance before - the marathon. An achievement never likely to be matched.
We are talking, of course, about Emil Zatopek, whose life forms the basis of Rick Broadbent’s newly published book Endurance.
To mark 100 days to go until Rio 2016, NBC Sports has put up its top 100 Olympians of all time - while sensibly admitting the exercise is “utterly absurd”. Zatopek comes in at No.13 in a list which has Jesse Owens, four-times gold medallist at the 1936 Berlin Games, at No.1.
As the writer, Joe Posnanski, comments, Owens’ extraordinary performances took place within just one Olympics, rather than at a series of them. But what tipped the balance in the famed black sprinter and long jumper’s favour, he felt, was the context - competing as Owens was against a background of racism in the United States, and a growing tide of Nazism in Germany. “In the moment,” Posnanski concludes: “He overcame the racism of his own country and the rising hatred in another.”
Zatopek’s athletic virtues were startling enough - by the time of his last race in 1958 the Czechoslovakian soldier had 18 world records to his credit, not to mention an additional three European titles. But it is the political context in which he was obliged to compete, painstakingly described in Broadbent’s intelligent, ambitious and wide-ranging account, which deepens one’s regard for a figure whose quirky, seemingly unquenchable spirit was recognised and appreciated around the world.
It was said of Zatopek, who spent much of his racing with face contorted and head rolling, that each step looked as if it might be his last. Which was true in a more profound sense - for this carpenter’s son, brought up in impoverished conditions, had constantly to avoid stepping out of line with a Communist regime that became increasingly paranoid and repressive after establishing control in 1948.
The fortunes of Zatopek and the man who effectively introduced him to competitive running while both were working at the Bata shoe factory in Zlin, Jan Haluza, are told in parallel in Broadbent’s account.
In September 1948, a month after his former protégé had earned world renown by winning his medals at the London Olympics, Haluza - a religious man who had become a rising opponent of Communism as a member of the Czechoslovak People’s Party - was arrested on trumped-up charges, tortured and then shipped off for six years of transit from one brutal work camp regime to another. Even after his release he was effectively on bail until the seismic political shift that followed the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
No torture or imprisonment was visited upon Zatopek, but 20 years of effective exile and menial labour awaited him following his instinctive opposition to Russia’s invasion of his home country in 1968, when he was one of 70 well-known signatories to the “2000 Words” article petitioning for greater Czech independence within the Warsaw Pact. As the Russian tanks rolled into Prague, Zatopek - by then a Lieutenant Colonel - was on the barricades, rousing his fellow countrymen, and then, in clandestine surroundings, broadcasting messages of defiance.
He had finally stepped over the political precipice that had been in his line of sight for as long as he had become the celebrated but carefully monitored symbol of the Czech regime.
Zatopek was a naturally amiable and agreeable soul, often mischievous, given to odd ideas and notions. He was a runner who made himself great through intensive, ingenious application, effectively pioneering interval training and hypoventilation training - in his case, seeing how many lampposts he could run past while holding his breath - which have since become immersed in the athletics mainstream.
He was not a political animal. And he was a human, rather than a paragon.
Endurance does not dodge the awkward issues in the manner of some of the great Olympian’s previous biographical studies. For as long as he was winning, and bringing honour to the Czech Communist regime, Zatopek was allowed a degree of licence not accorded to ordinary citizens. But the flipside of that was that he was seen as an instrument of propaganda, and as such, often instructed or coerced to back the state over key issues.
Close friends, and even his wife Dana, winner of the Olympic javelin title in Helsinki, attested that he would sometimes simply sign whatever was put in front of him without taking too much trouble to inspect it. One such was a statement criticising opposition politician Milada Horakova, who was later imprisoned and hanged, despite international pleas for clemency from, among others, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein.
The complexity of Zatopek’s character was highlighted by two incidents two years later, shortly before the 1952 Olympics. Fellow athlete Milan Svajgr, who had fallen out of favour with the regime after making it clear he did not support them, felt his prospects of making the Olympic team were effectively undermined when the “cadre men from the Central Committee” arrived to question him, and Zatopek told them he would not select Svajgr for Helsinki because if chosen he would stay there. Zatopek later admitted to Svajgr that he was wrong, but the damage was done. Svajgr did not make the team.
Soon afterwards, however, Zatopek made a rigorous and determined stand on behalf of another young Czech athlete, Stanislav Jungwirth, who would later break the world 1500m record. Jungwirth’s father, a postman, had been arrested and jailed for delivering anti-regime leaflets, and his son was forbidden to travel to the West.
Zatopek protested that this was not fair, and added that if Jungwirth didn’t travel to Helsinki, nor would he. There were plans for the team to leave on two flights, but Zatopek refused to take the first one if Jungwirth wasn’t on it, suspecting he would be pulled from the following flight. According to Ludvik Liska, a friend of both athletes, Zatopek insisted: “Bind our hands or I will not fly.”
After the main bulk of the team, including Dana, had flown out, Zatopek and Jungwirth were allowed to make their belated departure.
What would turn out to be one of the greatest athletic performances of all time had hung in the balance. As Dana recalled to Broadbent in Prague last year: “He called their bluff and it was horrible.”
It was also deeply honourable.