The man who changed running, that’s what they call Emil Zátopek, one of the greatest Olympic champions of all time, a truly brilliant runner, but also a man living through both WWII and the Cold War in Communist-run Czechoslovakia. This graphic biography tells Zátopek’s story of athletic brilliance against a changing world.
This graphic biography takes us back to Emil’s youth, against a backdrop of unrest in his country, whether that’s the Nazi occupation in WWII or the Communist regime post-war, and then follows Zátopek’s glittering athletic career, one that would culminate at the 1956 Helsinki Olympic Games where this most unusual of runners took three gold medals.
It’s 200+ pages of striking artwork and design that mostly works in covering the two important aspects of Zátopek’s life, on and off the track. Off the track, we’re shown the brutal realities of the Communist regime, first as Zátopek’s initial mentor, Dr. Jan Haluza, is taken into custody, tortured, and imprisoned for his views, and later when Zátopek himself is forced to act prior to the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games when he used his national hero status to pressure, and eventually blackmail the Communist regime into allowing Stanislav Jungwirth, a political outcast, to compete at the games.
But it’s really when Zátopek gets onto the track that this book really takes off, his distinctive running style, his mantra of ‘when you can’t keep going, go faster!’ a key to his future successes.
We track his development, his unconventional approach to running, his ungainly style and the grimace and pained expressions that went along with his improving performances.
In between the races, we see him meet his future wife, athlete Dana Ingrová, another talented and determined athlete, clash with the bosses at the factory, and enlist in the post-WWII army to get access to better training. And all along, he’s getting better and faster… becoming the man who would rule the world of athletics.
Already a gold medallist from the 1948 London Olympics 10,000m, Zátopek went on to break the world records for the 5,000m, 10,000m, 20,000m, 25,000m, 30,000m, and one-hour race, Zátopek’s brilliance was as unique as his running style, body rocking from side to side, face twisted in pain, earning him the nickname ‘the Czech Locomotive.’
And then come the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games themselves, where Zátopek would race and win, in magnificent fashion, not just the 10,000m where he had dominated for years but also his lesser event, the 5,000m, and incredibly the marathon, an event he had never run before the 1952 Games. And he not only won but broke Olympic records in all three – making him the only person ever to win all three at the same games.
The marathon was a particular triumph, told as the final event of this book, Zátopek’s simple plan was to race alongside Jim Peters, the British world-record holder and favourite. He did that and more, accelerating past an astonished Peters when Zátopek believed the pace was too slow, eventually winning his very first marathon by two minutes.
Everything about Zátopek the book works so well, capturing the essence of the awe and wonder that this magnificent athlete and man deserves. It’s told through the striking art of Jaromir 99, utilising a gorgeous and minimal colour palette to great effect.
But the biggest problem with Zátopek the book is that it tells most, but not all, of the story. And that’s a real shame, as Zátopek’s story didn’t end where the book does, just after the triumph of the Helsinki Games.
Here in the book, we’re given a page of rest of life biographical summaries of the key players, Zátopek, Dana Ingrová, Jan Haluza, and Stanislav Jungwirth, all with happy endings.
Yet just looking at a little bit of Zátopek’s history shows you that this really wasn’t the whole story.
Instead, from what’s here, we know nothing of Zátopek’s life after 1954 and that’s a mistake, as it both completes the story and shows us just how dangerous a world Zátopek was involved in when he messed with politics in Czechoslovakia.
His later support of the democratic wing of the Communist Party meant he fell foul of the 1968 Prague Spring, resulting in him being expelled from the party, removed from public sight and forced to live away from his wife and work a number of terrible jobs. A broken man by the late 70s, the Communist government finally allowed him back to Prague, to his wife, and to a menial, humiliating job in the Czech Union of Physical Education. It was only in 1990, 10 years before his death, that he was finally recognised as a hero of his country once more by Václav Havel.
Now, as good, as enjoyable, as artistically striking as Zátopek is, it suffers because it doesn’t go far enough, doesn’t tell us the whole story, focuses on telling us the tale of a truly brilliant athlete and leaves the story before the story was truly done.
Zátopek – Written by Jan Novák, illustrated by Jaromir 99, translated from the Czech by Jan Novák. Published by SelfMadeHero, 2020.