This post was written for and first appeared on One Foot In Reality.
For my birthday back in August, I received three running books for my birthday and Today We Die A Little was one of them. It is also the one that took the longest for me to read, but yet the first that I wanted to write a review on.
Today We Die A Little was hard for me to read because the author gave us the man, not just the larger than life hero, that so many biographies tend to do. Some parts were just difficult for me to read, because some of the history in the book was front page news when I was growing up.
This book was less about a great runner and more about the man behind and beyond Zatopek the runner, though it did give the highlights of his triumphs and there were many. It gave glimpses into a world that is very different from the one we live in today.
One where the freedoms that many of us take for granted in the West, were not a part of the daily life of people or athletes - those people I grew up "knowing" as the enemy. To me growing up Zatopek was a name that was foreign and he was a Communist that wanted to conquer the world as we knew it. At least that is what we were told.
As I have gotten older, I have found out people are mostly just people, who have hopes, dreams, want to live their lives in peace and not be bothered by governments more than they have to be.
Emile Zatopek was loved or admired by other athletes and many people of his era for his humanness, honesty, love of life and generosity. Even so, the persona he became and the privileges he enjoyed as successful Olympic athlete, also brought on petty jealousies and retribution from officials who wanted to bring him down when he went outside of the official party line.
The book goes into great detail about Zatopek's struggles with authority during his "glory years" and even after his career was over.
Which is something that I did not expect, a book describing how quickly and brutally Zatopek's fall from grace was orchestrated. Then how even in the depths that he had to sink, how Zatopek managed to keep living, despite the changes the fall brought to his life. It made me wonder of the conversations that were done behind closed doors and the threats that were probably made, that influenced Zatopek's choices during that time and how he chose to basically go into exile and agree to show support for things that he didn't agree with at times, to protect those that he loved.
While I was reading the parts of the book that showed some of these struggles, I wondered how would I have handled being in the military and a successful athlete on the international stage during the repressive Communist rule that was a part of the 50's and 60's. Hopefully, I would have done as well as Zatopek did, but if I am honest with myself...I don't know and that is scary.
You know, toe the party line enough to survive, get by and not lose the privileges and lifestyle that was earned by being a successful athlete. In other words, if I put myself in Zatopek's place during that time, would I have stood up to the leadership of the day to the extent that he did and then attempting to know when to back down to not lose everything. Which often means swallowing your pride and doing what is necessary to survive.
It is one thing to be a hero (don't we all want to be one) and another thing to not lose the life and lifestyle you have worked hard to attain and become accustomed to. Sometimes it is easier to not be a hero and leads to a longer a life and less time in prison. I think the title Today We Die A Little, explains a little more than just the pain Zatopek felt during a race, it might also describe some of the periods of his life after the "glory days".
Biographers typically go either one of two ways when it comes to telling the story of the person they are writing about. They either tend to put them on a pedestal or attempt to bury them in the shame of their follies and deeds. I believe that while Askwith presented Zatopek's life in a mostly positive light, he did attempt to show that Zatopek was also a man, with weaknesses, someone who was not always right and that he definitely was not a saint.
Askwith showed Zatopek as a complex man, who was a great athlete, but also a man who lived in a difficult and turbulent time in history. One where unless you literally walked in Zatopek shoes, it is not up to us to judge the choices that he made or were forced upon him.
You notice that my book review is less about Zatopek the runner, because as impressive as his running exploits were...I was more impressed with Zatopek the man. Although I would love to see with modern training methods and today's finely tuned tracks, the times he would be capable of doing.
I have a feeling his greatness would be as transcendent today, as it was then.
A very good book that I will be keeping my library and re-read again as some point. Yes, it was that good.