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Za-to-pek! by Bob Phillips

Release date: 29th July, 2004
Publisher: Parrs Wood Press

List Price: 14.95
Our Price: 10.47
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By Bob Phillips price: £10.47 (rrp £14.95)

In an age of sporting superstars, it is difficult for most of us to imagine just how athletes of 50 years ago simply got on with their job without the backing of sponsors, the blanket coverage afforded by broadcasters or today's 'must-have' dietary supplements. Indeed the vast majority of athletes had full time jobs outside of the sport.

Can the absence of this paraphernalia still make athletes of yesteryear sporting superstars? You bet - Emil Zatopek is considered by many commentators to be the greatest distance runner ever. The reasons why stare the reader in the face even before he starts Zatopek! as a summary of the Czech army officer's astonishing athletics career appears on the inside front cover.

He held a total of seven world records in three separate recognised events between 1949 and 1954; in addition, he created seven further world records at seven different distances. The eye is taken by an incredible few days he had in 1954: in Paris on 30th May, he established a new 5,000m world record before travelling to Brussels a few days later to notch up a new 10,000m world best. How would he be feted today, what riches would await a man who changed the face of athletics and became a legend in his own lifetime?

These are hypothetical questions. What is absolutely certain is Zatopek's ability, richly conveyed by Bob Phillips in this collection of personal recollections by fellow competitors, journalists and fans.

Participation in sport had been restricted in Czechoslovakia by the invading Germans which meant that Zatopek was a late developer. Even by the age of 19, his time for the 1,500 metres was a rather pedestrian 4:20. By 1944 however, he had established national records in the 3,000m and 5,000m, despite having his style - rolling head and seemingly agonising arm movement - continuously questioned by coaches.

Later, one journalist noticed that although his technique was not one drawn from the traditional runner's training manual, "Zatopek ran with the evenness of a metronome." It was to prove the key to the great Czech's success.

During the run-up to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Zatopek had been seriously ill and, although he was the reigning 10,000m Olympic champion and had claimed silver in 1948 at 5,000m, he was advised not to participate. Yet Zatopek contrived to go one - and memorably, eventually two - better, curing himself by consuming a mixture of tea and fresh lemons to arrive in Helsinki raring to go.

Briton Gordon Pirie had endeavoured to match Zatopek's relentless training schedule, but eventually had to give way in the 10,000m final where the Czech bettered his Olympic record by an incredible 42 seconds.

The 5,000m final a few days later produced one of the most dramatic last laps in Olympic history. Overtaken by three men including Chris Chataway in the back straight, Zatopek had to run wide on the final bend in an effort to get past them. As he did, Chataway tripped on the kerb and fell leaving Zatopek and two runners separated by no more than a stride. In the home straight, the Czech's superior strength told and he came home in a new Olympic record. Remarkably, Zatopek's wife, Dana, won the women's javelin Olympic gold medal at almost exactly the same time.

A few days later, Zatopek decided to race in the Olympic marathon, his first, at the last minute. After 26 miles, as he entered the stadium in first place, the crowd erupted, rhythmically chanting his name, Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek!, the salute borrowed for the title of this book which evokes memories of a different age.

Read it before the Athens Olympics and marvel at the newsreel memories of 1952 that will invariably be re-run over the coming weeks because you're unlikely to see a better distance runner in Greece this summer.

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