Tag Archives: Emil Zatopek

“Plimsolls On, Eyeballs Out: The Rise and Horrendous Fall of Marathon Legend Jim Peters” by Rob Hadgraft

As an athletics fan, I always find it frustrating when people talk about Paula Radcliffe as if the most significant thing she ever achieved was to do a gingerbread man halfway round the London Marathon. Or they talk about her as a failure because she never won an Olympic medal. Her world record is extraordinary, but life can be very cruel to remarkable people. We only like to remember the times when people messed up. Just ask Michael Fish.

Hypocrite that I am, my knowledge of mid-20th century British marathon champ Jim Peters extended purely to one incident; he was the guy in the 1952 Olympic marathon whom Emil Zatopek (see review) asked “is the pace a bit too slow?”. When Peters jokingly said yes, Zatopek responded “oh, right” and zoomed off into Olympic history. Peters himself dropped out of the race.

What a shame. As I learnt from Rob Hadgraft’s definitive biography (see my reviews of his other books about Alf Shrubb and Deerfoot), Jim Peters was arguably Britain’s greatest athletics star of the immediate post-war era. A world record holder, he was a man who transformed how people trained for the marathon. He was a contemporary of Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, but unlike those university men, he was a working class lad from East London who saved up his money in Depression-era Britain to buy his first plimsolls from Woolworths, and balanced his training regime with full-time work as an optician.

Peters’ story illustrates how some athletes take time to find their true distance. Prior to the Second World War, he showed promise but didn’t set the running scene alight. Following the war he won a major 6 mile race, but what struck me reading Plimsolls On was that Peters was not a Steve Prefontaine (see related review), winning every race in sight. In the 1947 National Cross-Country he only placed 62nd. He did make it to the 1948 Olympics, but finished 8th in the 10,000m final, well behind emerging star Zatopek. The book makes you wonder how much of his shorter-distance talent was wasted by the 6-year lay-off caused by the war, as well as how many potential stars of the sport never had the opportunity to shine.

His failure in 1948 led Peters to retire from the sport, much to the delight of his wife, who wanted him to focus on being an optician and raising their son. Yet the temptation to return was always there, and his former coach, Jonny Johnston persuaded him to give the marathon a shot. He never looked back. On his debut at the Polytechnic Marathon in 1951 Peters hadn’t bothered to taper, and shocked the onlookers and “expert commentators” by surging at break-neck pace throughout the race, just as 2008 Olympic winner Sammy Wanjiru would do more than 50 years later to much acclaim about how the Kenyan had changed the sport. Peters broke the British record in his first race and the world record (which was then 2hrs 25mins) a year later, ending a period of dominance by Japanese and Korean runners.

Peters would go on to race several marathons a year and set 4 further records, taking his marathon to 2hrs 17mins. He became the most talked-about athlete in Britain, capable of generating headlines in the News of the World. His weekly mileage of 100miles+ was frankly insane for a man doing a full time job, and he did it all in flimsy plimsolls. His training methods represented a sea-change in thinking, moving away from the opinions of early 20th century ultra-runner Arthur Newton, who advocated lots of long, slow running to build stamina. Instead Peters never did what he called a “jog trot” in training. He only ran fast. His standard 10mile training run in Epping Forest was usually completed in around 55minutes, about 8 minutes faster than my own race PB!

The 1952 Olympics went wrong for Peters. He had a horrendous journey, which included illness, a howling draught in the plane, and the same plane being struck by lightning during the flight. However he went on to win several more races and come second in the Boston marathon in 1954. His goal though became to take gold for Britain at the Empire Games in Vancouver later that year.

The Empire Games was the predecessor of today’s Commonwealth Games, and was an opportunity for athletes from Canada, Britain, New Zealand and others connected by a common British heritage to compete. Peters was favourite to win the marathon. In classic “I don’t taper style” he ran in the 6 mile race the week beforehand, just as Galen Rupp ran in the 10,000m before taking Bronze in the Rio Olympics in 2016. The day of the marathon was swelteringly hot, but this was a time when races had few water stops, and in Vancouver they didn’t even have the wet sponges that Peters usually expected. The British team were also suspicious that the course was too long, although their concerns was overruled.

Peters took a comfortable lead. At 25 miles he was 3 miles ahead of the nearest competitor. Then tragedy set in. As he entered the stadium he collapsed with just 380 yards to go. He got up, then collapsed again. Repeatedly. All carried out in front of a horrified crowd that included the Duke of Edinburgh. He finally crossed what he thought was the finishing line and then was pulled away to get help. In a cruel twist, the finishing line for the marathon was actually 200 yards further on, and he was disqualified from the race, which was eventually won by Scotsman Joe McGhee, who arrived in the stadium 15 minutes later, rather surprised to hear that he was the winner.

Team-mate Chris Brasher would later tell the media that Peters’ brain temperature was recorded at 107 degrees, meaning that his brain was literally close to cooking. Another medically trained team-mate stayed behind to watch over Peters, and so it came to pass that about a week later Jim Peters and Dr Roger Bannister stepped off a plane in London to tell their deeply contrasting stories to reporters. Bannister had won the “mile of the century” against Australian John Landy; Peters had narrowly survived death, and retired instantly from competitive running.

It would later transpire that the Vancouver course was indeed too long, and when re-measured it was found to be close to 27 miles. Peters had already completed the marathon distance before his collapse in the stadium. Some speculate that if he’d known that he had a 3-mile lead, he would have slowed down and not over-exerted himself in the heat. Others disagree, saying that Peters’ flaw was that he only knew one way to race: eyeballs out.

Peters died in 1999, but today he is remembered in other ways. The first Briton to cross the line of the London Marathon wins the Jim Peters Trophy. The most notable winner of the trophy? Paula Radcliffe, Britain’s most remarkable marathoner since Peters. But yes, it is hard to forget she did a poo mid-race.

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“Today we Die a Little: The Rise & Fall of Emil Zátopek” by Richard Askwith

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.

 

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“The Perfect Mile: The Race to Break the Four Minute Mile” by Neal Bascomb

Spoiler Alert! At some point in this book, Roger Bannister becomes the first man to break the four minute mile! I know, I know. Some of you will have thrown away this review in disgust with me already. As for the rest of you, I hope you’re not too annoyed that I’ve given away this vital plot point. The genius of this book is that, despite knowing how events will play out, it is still a riveting page-turner. As it happens, the events on 6 May 1954 are only a part of the full story.

Indeed, the book isn’t really about Bannister. This is a book about global rivalry, human eccentricity, and superhuman feats of time management.

Bascomb looks at the three pre-eminent milers of their day: Bannister, Australian John Landy, and American Wes Santee. Each of these men was licking his wounds after disappointment at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and set out to break the seemingly impossible target of a sub-4 mile, the record for which had been stuck at 4:01.4 since 1945.

Quite frankly, you wonder how on earth Bannister did it, while simultaneously practicing as a junior doctor AND conducting pioneering sports science research in the lab. The book records how Bannister would jump on the Tube during his lunch break, head to the Paddington track, complete an interval session with chain-smoking Chris Chataway (who would beat Bannister to BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1954) and Chris “founder of Sweatshop and London marathon” Brasher, then head back to the hospital, shower and eat – all within his lunch hour. You can only assume that (a) he ran those intervals with his eyeballs on stalks, and (b) the sandwich queue at Pret-a-Manger wasn’t as bad in those days.

The sections about Bannister are interesting enough in their own right, but how many of us know who was the second person to break the four minute mile? I won’t spoil the story by saying whether it was Landy or Santee, but both are fascinating characters, worthy of wider recognition. Landy was a seemingly middle-of-the-road runner in 1952, but was utterly transformed by training during the Olympics with the legendary Czech runner Emil Zatopek, who won golds in the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon, all while grimacing like he’d been forced to eat a rotten brussel sprout. Santee was an outstanding college runner, who would face the challenge of having to do military service while preparing to take on the mile, as well as dealing with the bureaucrats from the American Amateur Athletics Association, who kept on finding inventive ways to undermine a runner who seemed to be getting too big for his plimsolls.

Bannister’s record is not the ending of the book, and comes just two-thirds of the way through. The real drama came in the weeks and months that followed, leading to a ‘mile of the century’ between the men who had now done the seemingly impossible. The ‘perfect mile’ of the title is not the one that happened at Iffley Road on 6 May 1954, but the showdown the following August in Vancouver. For those of us that don’t know how that race unfolded, the race report here is genuinely thrilling, and keeps you guessing the winner until the very last yards.

Overall, this is one of the best running books I have ever read. It even inspired me to (literally) run a mile afterwards, a distance few of us race these days, to see how it felt. I would have been more than a lap behind Bannister. And he probably didn’t throw up afterwards.

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