Richard Askwith - Learning Czech in the country of Zátopek

                                                        An Interview

Richard Askwith

Learning Czech in the country of Zátopek

When I read the book about Emil Zátopek, the celebrated Olympic distance-runner of the 1940s and 1950s, I simply wanted to contact its author, Richard Askwith, and ask him a couple of questions about the whole process of writting it. 

1) What made you to undertake certainly a time-consuming research about Zátopek and writing a book about him?

I've been fascinated by Zátopek for as long as I can remember. I think I first heard of him in my early teens, when people in the West were speculating about what had happened to him after the Prague Spring (ed.note: the period of political liberalization in former Czechoslovakia in 1968); and over many years as an adult runner I've always thought of him as an inspiring figure - someone to think about when the going got tough. But I never got round to writing about him, and when a publisher first suggested it, I was doubtful, because I thought it would be too difficult. I'm really glad I did it, though. It was incredibly hard work, but it has also been one of the most rewarding and absorbing projects I've ever worked on.

2) Is this the first time you got in touch with the history and culture of the Czech Republic (and former Czechoslovakia)?

Yes. Apart from my interest in Zátopek, and a superficial sense of what happened in 1938 and 1968, I knew nothing about Czech culture/history apart from Kafka (ed.note:Franz Kafka, a German - language writer living in Prague), Hašek (ed.note:Jaroslav Hašek, a Czech humorist writer), Dvořák (ed.note:Antonín Dvořák, a Czech composer) and that's about it. Oh yes, and I knew about Havel (ed.note: Václav Havel, a Czech writer, dissident, the first president of Czech Republic) , and a bit about Czech Communism from the works of the English playwright Tom Stoppard, who was originally from Czechoslovakia. But I had certainly never spoken a word of Czech - and never imagined that I would. But one of the best things about writing the book was immersing myself in Czech culture. I really fell in love with the place.

But one of the best things about writing the book was immersing myself in Czech culture.

3) Did you do all the research on your own or did someone help you? For example with the Czech language?

I was helped by several interpreters, although I did also try to learn Czech. (I made some progress with that, but I'm not at all good.) I also got some help in the military archives and the StB archives (ed.note: StB, a former secret political police force in former Czechoslovakia). But everything else was all done by me. Although of course all sorts of people who knew Zátopek were very helpful in all sorts of ways. It was an enormous amount of work, but I didn't feel I could really entrust it to anyone else. And anyway I couldn't afford to pay someone else to do the work for me.

4) What is, from your point of view, the main theme of the book?

That's a tricky one. There were many themes to Zátopek's life. That's one of the things that makes him so interesting to write and read about. At one level you could say that it's a story about the power of the human spirit. It wasn't his physical attributes that made him a champion. It was his mental qualities: the unwavering self-belief, the determination, the inventiveness, the courage to shrug off pain. And, similarly, it was his spirit that made him loved: his kindness, his humour, his sense that running wasn't just a route to glory but a vehicle for friendship. And, later on, it was his spirit that made him a hero during the Prague Spring. He had a real impact on the world, and made a real difference for the better, simply because of the quality of his soul.

So that's one way of looking at it. But there are other themes as well. You could also say that it's a story about the romance of running - the idea that, as Emil put it, "An athlete cannot run with money in his pocket. He must run with hope in his heart and dreams in his head."

Or, equally, you could see it as a tragic story about the human condition. For all his wonderful qualities and achievements, Emil had flaws, and ultimately these led to his letting people down in various ways - which is what tends to happen in life, because nobody's perfect, and all lives end in sadness.

Those are some of the themes that I'm aware of, anyway. As for which themes come out most strongly in the book - that's probably not for me to say.

Or, equally, you could see it as a tragic story about the human condition.

5) What was the most difficult part of writing this book? Looking into archives about Zátopek's history as a potential communist spy/informer? Or was it something else?

The hardest thing was deciding what was true. There was so much evidence - and I wish I'd had time to go through more. But it was so hard to feel certain about anything. It was so long ago, & people didn't always remember things very precisely, & some people, especially in the past, didn't always tell the truth (sometimes for good reason). I felt tantalisingly close to having a proper, definitively sense of everything that happened in Zátopek's life - and yet somehow there were always lingering doubts and ambiguities. I think this probably comes across in the book, but I hope readers will feel that, because I've been open about this, they can trust what I write.

6) When I spoke to my dad about reading the book and the theme of Zátopek, I was surprised how much he knew about him. Yet, I knew only basic facts, not even that he won 5 olympic medals! My dad answered to my surprise by saying that it looks like the entire world knows and remembers Zátopek, except his homeland. What is your experience with this? Do people remember him around the world?

I find that very interesting. In the UK, most people over a certain age have heard of him. Ask an 80-year-old, or even a 70-year-old, and even if they're not at all interested in sport they'll have heard of him - because in the 1950s he was one of the most famous people on the planet. But ask someone under 40 - even if they're really interested in running - and often the name means nothing to them. I was really surprised when I first discovered this, but it seems to be almost universal, even in Czechoslovakia. I think it's because after 1968 he really vanished from public discourse. In Czechoslovakia he was someone you didn't talk about. In the West, no one knew enough about what had happened to him to be able to say anything helpful about him. By the time he'd re-emerged from the shadows, between 1989 and his death in 2000, it was too late. There was a 20-year gulf between past and present, and his legend didn't really travel across that gap.

7) Have you been in touch with any Zátopek's family members and friends mentioned in the book since publishing it?

I've exchanged messages with Dana, and with Emil's nephew and niece, and they've all had copies of the book. But I suspect they'll wait until the Czech translation is published (Mlada Fronta are doing one) before they read it. I hope they'll feel that I've done Emil justice, though.


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