Emil Zátopek was stripped of his role in national sport after his defiance of the 1968 Soviet invasion in the wake of the Prague Spring.    Photo: Erin Wilson

Before there was Mo Farah, Haile Gebrselassie, or Steve Prefontaine, there was Emil Zátopek. The "Czech Locomotive" earned his nickname for the way he would string out the competition behind him on the track: a train of athletes struggling to keep pace with the Moravian soldier who was the preeminent distance runner of his generation.

From the late forties to the mid fifties, he was almost invincible. 

During this period, Zátopek set 18 world records and won five Olympic medals, four of them gold. At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, he won the 5,000-meter, 10,000-meter, and marathon races, a feat that had never been done before and is unlikely to be repeated. 

Beyond his athletic prowess, he was known for his gregarious sportsmanship, a trait that stood out even more in a world partitioned by the Cold War.  For the affable Zátopek, ideological division didn't overshadow the unique bond between distance runners; in endurance of pain, they were comrades all. Standing at the starting line of the 1956 Olympic marathon in Melbourne, in sweltering conditions, Zátopek allegedly said to his fellow runners, "Men, today we die a little." 

In his new book, Today We Die A Little!, out May 24, British journalist and author Richard Askwith tells the Zátopek story, from his early days working in a shoemaking factory in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to his post-war rise to international athletic superstardom. While many sports biographies dwell primarily in and around the arena, the second half of Today We Die a Little! deals, as it must, with the vicissitudes of life in a Soviet satellite state. For Zátopek, these included both ostracism from the Communist regime for his (peaceful) resistance to the invasion of Warsaw Pact forces, and, later on, scorn from the hardliners of that resistance, who criticized him for betraying their cause.

Before getting to the melancholy second act of Zátopek's life, Askwith offers plenty for athletics fans to savor. Zátopek remains a compelling character in part thanks to stories of his outlandish training methods. He ran workouts in his army boots in the forests of Stará Boleslav; ran in deep snow; ran in sand; ran while carrying others on his back; ran in a water-filled washtub full of dirty laundry. What emerges is a portrait of an old-fashioned athlete, a portrait that is refreshing in our age of data obsession and hyper-professionalization. (Never mind that "recovery fuel" malarkey. According to his wife Dana, herself an Olympic gold medalist in the javelin throw, "Emil always said beer is best, after a race.")

Still, data has its place. Askwith should be commended for chronicling Zátopek's times in various events, a detail that running obsessives will appreciate. As any serious fan of the sport knows, there's something subtly torturous about reading race reports that don't include this information. (And it happens all the time.) Askwith is also generous with specifics about Zátopek's immense training load. Zátopek is considered a pioneer of the now-standard practice of interval training, favoring 400-meter repeats. That said, if a coach today were to recommend a Zátopek-style workout, that coach would not be a coach for very long: "The training was merciless: at times he was doing 100X400m, sometimes seven days a week; 'horse dosage, every day' was how Emil described it."

If Askwith's biography has a weakness, it's in the prose, which can be rough and veers cliché at moments. Occasionally we get sentences like: "But the romance in their relationship was tempered by a playfulness that often spilled over into simple silliness." Or: "The bell tolled. The minute of his destiny had begun. He kicked." The success of the propaganda campaign and show trial that lead to the execution of anti-Communist dissident Milada Horáková is summed up: "And so, like a grotesque precursor of the Ice Bucket Challenge, the campaign went viral." 

Despite these lapses, Askwith's book is worth reading, and not just for diehard running fans or Cold War buffs. There's one particular aspect of Zátopek's story that feels very relevant to contemporary athletics. Once he became famous, there was tremendous pressure on Zátopek to win. He was, after all, an "irresistible instrument of Party propaganda" since his "triumphs represented a triumph for the entire Communist system." Anyone who thinks that the days of athlete-as-propaganda-tool for nationalist causes are over need only consider the most recent revelations in the Russian "state-sponsored" Olympic doping scandal, to cite one conspicuous example. We should be grateful, at least, that Zátopek was competing in a pre-doping age.

Despite the privileges of being a famous athlete, Zátopek was hostage to a totalitarian system whose ideology he at least partially believed in, having become an official member of the Communist party in December 1953. As he was honored in the last years of his life and after his death in 2000, Zátopek was also increasingly criticized for not taking a more aggressive stand against a corrupt system. Of course, not being complicit tended to be bad for your health, especially among those who, like Zátopek, held government jobs. As Askwith makes clear, "Everyone who lived in Czechoslovakia between 1948 and 1989 faced choices that most of us can barely imagine."

That might be why Askwith places special emphasis on two prominent episodes where Zátopek did take a strong stand: his refusal to go to the 1952 Olympics unless a politically blacklisted teammate also be allowed to travel, and his outspoken defiance of the 1968 Soviet invasion aimed at halting the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring. Such acts, to be sure, required a kind of courage that is difficult for anyone living in a Western democracy today to fully comprehend. The latter resulted in Zátopek being expelled from the army and national sport, and sent to do dangerous manual labor.

And yet, the image one is left with at the end of Today We Die A Little! is not that of an Eastern European Steve Prefontaine or Muhammad Ali. Zátopek, one senses, was far too innocent to be a symbol of defiance. He was just an emphatically decent man in an indecent time. In 1968, when Soviet tanks stood in the streets of Prague, Zátopek would approach invading soldiers and ask how they could justify being involved in a military operation "when the Olympic Games are imminent and all nations are supposed to observe a truce."

Some of the invading soldiers didn't even know what country they were in.