By Bob Phillips
17th July 2017
In search of elusive shadows
in the far distant land of Wenceslas
“The bright little stadium in the country, well sheltered by a belt of high trees”, as it was fondly described some 60 years ago, still stands. The woodland clusters round, as it has for centuries. The pallid sunlight slants through the branches on a brisk early-spring morning. A familiar figure comes padding out of the shadows and across the grass, balding head, arms pumping furiously, “one moment looking like a super-tuned machine, the next like a fugitive from justice”, as one acute observer wrote of him.
On to the crumbling cinders the runner steps, and then he begins to stride round, relentlessly, kilometre after kilometre after kilometre, more than 20 of them in all – the best part of 60 circuits of the odd little 364-metre track. The lone English journalist in the makeshift press-seats watches intently for more than an hour, his eyes leaving the grey-vested runner only to scribble hastily in his notebook as the encouraging cries of a few hundred spectators echo across the parkland.
But am I just imagining all this?
Now, even though it is almost 70 years later, I sense the presence of the legend – one of the Gods of the stadium, even though he probably did not recognise the existence of any deity, human or heavenly. I am at the elbow of the lone scribe, whose mounting paperwork becomes a mass of hieroglyphics – lap-times, records broken, schedules surpassed. Eight miles, nine miles, 10 miles … the records fall. Then 15 kilometres and 20 kilometres … and the clock has still not reached the hour.
Finally, as the chimes begin, an excited official scampers across the infield in desperate pursuit of the lone figure on the track and thrusts a marker-peg into the grass verge alongside his footfall. Later the tape-measure stretches out to the exact spot for the mundane formalities of record-application procedures.
On the evening of 29 September 1951 Emil Zátopek has run precisely 20,052.40 metres in the hour. James Armour-Milne, in his own words, has “had the great good fortune to see him doing it”. The crowd surges across the track as the other runners plod on. Zátopek grasps a microphone and makes a spirited speech of thanks. Armour-Milne – the English journalist who shares Zátopek’s political beliefs and faithfully chronicles the fulfilment of each record-breaking endeavour – intently copies down every word.
I listen and watch spellbound.
Whenever we were to read in those early 1950s of the latest of Zátopek’s sensational achievements there was always the same other name associated with the great deeds. Not that of a rival on the track – on that September evening of so long ago the nearest had been over two kilometres behind – but of the man who reported race after race so enthusiastically. Known to readers of the British magazine, “Athletics Weekly”, as J. Armour Milne, he was a sports-writer who lived in Prague, readily acknowledged his sympathies with communist ideology, and vigorously defended the life-style of Zátopek and his state-aided Czech team-mates. Whenever and wherever Zátopek ran, Armour-Milne was there as diarist. He wrote as a passionate observer, not as an ideological propagandist.
Hidden away on the broad Bohemian plains,
The Stará Boleslav stadium
Zátopek returned twice more to this rural stadium then known simply as “HouÅŸtka” and now re-
named in tribute as “Atletické-stÅ™edisko-Emila-Zátopka”. Even the ancient Bohemian town of Stará Boleslav, on the outskirts of which the stadium stands, is no longer quite the same – re-entitled clumsily (at least to my unattuned ears) “Brandys nad Labem-Stará Boleslav” in the interests of some local government reorganisation.
I have taken the super-efficient Prague subway system out to the Cerny Most terminus and then transferred to a No.367 bus in the station forecourt for a half-hour journey, briefly along a motorway and then winding across the undistinguished plain. From the somnolent Stará Boleslav town square I’ve enquired the way of several locals, none of whom
speak a word of English but are all eager to help. Finally, two obliging youngsters point the way and follow me discreetly to make sure I’ve understood their directions.
Stará Boleslav has a macabre history. In the 10th Century the patron saint of Czechoslovakia, St Wenceslas, was murdered there by his brother (or with his brother’s connivance). But mine is a different pilgrimage – of a pagan kind but no less devoted more than a thousand years later.
Of course, the running-track is not the same as it was in 1951, and then again in 1952 and 1953, when Zátopek set eight more World records, including 10,000 metres in 29:01.6, which beat his own record of three years before and was more than a quarter-of-a-minute faster than any other man had ever run – the next best being Gordon Pirie a couple of months before. Nor is it the same surface on which 18 other World records were achieved, most memorably including 3:38.1 for 1500 metres by Stanislav Jungwirth in 1957 and 5:01.2 for 2000 metres by Josef Odlozil in 1965.
In 2001 an all-weather surface of a conventional 400 metres in diameter was laid. Zátopek would have approved. Maybe, had he somehow known of such an invention for the future, he would have mused while continuing to tread the mythical cinders as to what he might have done with such resilient rubber beneath his feet. Surely no Bekele or Gebrselassie would have daunted him?
I take the bus back to Prague where a major indoor track meeting is to be held a day or so later, but there’s no event on that programme to set Zátopek’s pulse racing – 3000 metres was not much more than a speedy warm-up for him, though he did once win the International Student Games 1500 metres and was even fancifully proposed as the potential first sub-four-minute miler by another renowned athletics correspondent, Harold Abrahams.
Even as I now write, far away in another land and in a different era, the memory remains undimmed, though the imagined scene has changed. The solitary runner, now swathed in sweaters and baggy track-suit trousers, trudges through the knee-deep snow, his cumbersome army-boots crunching their way into the drifts that stretch endlessly before him.
Deep and crisp and even.
Emil Zátopek’s 14 World records at Stará Boleslav
29 November 1951:
8 miles – 38:29.2, lasted until 1961, when Basil Heatley (GB) ran 38:13.8
9 miles – 43:21.9, lasted until 1961, when Heatley ran 43:05.2.
15 kilometres – 44:54.6, lasted until 1965, when Ron Clarke (Australia) ran 44:13.0.
10 miles – 48:12.0, lasted until 1961, when Heatley ran 47:47.0.
20 kilometres – 59:51.8, lasted until 1963, when Bill Baillie (NZ) ran 59:28.6
One hour – 20,052 metres, lasted until 1963, when Baillie ran 20,190 metres.
26 October 1952:
15 miles – 1:16:26.4, lasted until 1955, when Zátopek ran 1:14:01.0, which in turn lasted until 1965, when Ron Hill (GB) ran 1:12:48.2.
25 kilometres – 1:19:11.8, lasted until 1955, when Albert Ivanov (USSR) ran 1:17:34.0 and Zátopek 1:16:36.4, which in turn lasted until 1965, when Hill ran 1:15:22.6.
30 kilometres – 1:35:23.8, lasted until 1956, when Antti Viskari (Finland) ran 1:35:03.6.
1 November 1953:
6 kilometres – 17:28.6. Not officially recognised.
7 kilometres – 20:24.0. Not officially recognised.
8 kilometres – 23:19.6. Not officially recognised.
6 miles – 28:08.4, lasted until 1954, when Zátopek ran 27:59.2, which in turn lasted until 1956, when Dave Stephens (Australia) ran 27:54.0.
10,000 metres – 29:01.6, lasted until 1954 when Zátopek ran 28:54.2, which in turn stood until 1956, when Sándor Iharos (Hungary) ran 28:42.8.
“Flying feet one moment, dragging limbs the next”
J. Armour Milne, reporting from Stará Boleslav in 1951 for “Athletics Weekly”.
“He ran as only a Zátopek could run such a distance, one moment looking like a super-tuned machine, the next like a fugitive from justice; grimacing painfully in one lap, smiling contentedly in the next, and finally winding up with a last lap that would have done credit to a first-class miler. Early in the season Emil had the World’s record at 5000 metres in mind. Clearly, he decided that that could wait. But this record attempt was something right out of the blue. I knew nothing of his intentions until three days beforehand. Then he casually announced that he was ripe for the attempt.
“This was the Zátopek the World knows, biting at the distance in snatches; a man of flying feet one moment, dragging limbs the next. There were times when he really looked as if he would provide a real sensation by retiring. Then a deep breath that seemed to lift him six inches taller sent him on his way again, refreshed and bubbling over with pace”.
The wonderment and the theorising has never faded since. In heartfelt tribute, I wrote the first English-language biography of Zátopek in 2004, and by remarkable coincidence no fewer than three further books dedicated to his life have appeared during the last year or two.