The bravest thing I have ever done is watch an episode of Button Moon. This seemingly innocent 1980s TV programme about a bottle man with kitchenware for arms filled my childhood with terror. At night the Freddie Krueger-esque presence of Mr Spoon would enter my dreams, leering horribly and dangling his merciless spoons of violence ever closer at my face. I couldn’t bear to see the show or hear its demonic theme tune. My so-called friends thought this was hilarious, and would regularly send me Button Moon-themed birthday cards and children’s TV soundtracks. One day in my 20s I gave in, and decided to face the peril. Loaded up on Plymouth Gin I sat through the opening credits and about 2 minutes of utensil-themed space action. Then I ran screaming into the night.
A story, then, of bravery and cowardice, both of which are the overriding themes of Today We Die a Little, the excellent new biography of Emil Zátopek by Richard Askwith (see earlier reviews of Feet in the Clouds and Running Free). Zátopek can rightly be regarded as one of the greatest athletes and Olympians of all time. He is one of only 4 athletes to have his own statue outside the Olympic Museum in Switzerland. At the 1956 Helsinki Olympics he won gold in the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon (his first ever race at the distance), a feat that is unlikely to be equalled. He broke an extraordinary 18 world records during his career, which lasted from 1941 to 1958. However, today his world records have been comprehensively demolished, and there were other athletes of his era – Vladimir Kuts, Lasse Viren, Gordon Pirie, Ron Clarke – who can all lay a claim to similar athletic greatness. Why then has the name of Zátopek passed into legend?
Bravery is part of the reason. Zátopek took training and endurance of pain to new levels. When Roger Bannister and Chris Chattaway were training to run the sub-4-minute mile, they were running 25-30 miles a week. Zátopek was regularly doing 20-mile interval sessions a day, doing 50, 70, 100 x 400m reps, all at eyeballs-out pace. In army boots. He wasn’t afraid to give everything he could on the track, and the resulting grimacing and gurning was a gift to sports journalists. “He ran like he was a man wrestling an octopus on a conveyor belt” is one of my favourites.
His appeal was about more than just guts. Despite only having a basic school education, Zátopek taught himself multiple foreign languages so he could converse with the people he met on his travels. If foreign fans knocked on his door, he would insist on speaking their native language of Finnish, English French etc rather than Czech, to make his visitors feel more welcome. A consummate sportsman, he famously gave Australian Ron Clarke – a great champion who never won an Olympics – his gold medal from Helsinki on the grounds that Clarke deserved it. He would tie his competitors’ shoelaces on the line if he noticed they were loose. He would cheer other runners over the finish line long after he completed a marathon. In many ways he was the Olympic spirit.
All of this was against the background of the Cold War, with Zátopek on the Communist side of the Iron Curtain. Here is where his story becomes troubling. In 1950 he was a signatory to a letter justifying purges of opponents of the Czech Communist regime, several of whom were executed. Many Czechs today regards him as a collaborator and even a snitch for the secret police. Askwith shows that Zátopek’s relationship with Communism was more complicated than that. Zátopek was a firm believer in the ideals of Communism and creating a fairer society for all, but he became disillusioned with the Soviet system. In 1968 he joined the protesters of the Prague Spring, pressing for greater freedom of expression and liberal reforms. When the Russians subsequently invaded and clamped down on dissent, Zátopek manned the barricades against them. As the David Beckham of his day, and internationally famous, he was ‘too big to jail’, but the authorities slowly ground him down.
Small humiliation after small humiliation was piled upon him. He was dismissed from his role as Director for Sport in the army. The man who had once been the first person to break 29 minutes for 10,000m was forced to join a mobile drilling crew. To evade further persecution he was forced to recant his support for liberal reforms, dismaying many of his comrades of 1968 who had chosen to suffer imprisonment or exile. Friends on both sides of the political divide abandoned him, and it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that he re-emerged into public life. Ultimately, the bravest athlete of his day was a coward when it came to facing up to bullies.
Or that’s how some see it. But let’s be honest, who of us today can comprehend the horrors of life under totalitarian government? Who amongst us would be brave enough to risk death to preserve our ideals? Most of us, however famous, would just do and say what was expected of us in order to survive and keep our families safe. Sometimes the Mr Spoon-like tentacles of the State are too terrifying to resist.