Athletics: Romance still found in Zatopek's lack of beauty

By Mike Rowbottom
Friday 18 April 2014 02:13

Browsing through a copy of Bob Phillips's recently published book on the life of Emil Zatopek (Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek!, Parrs Wood Press, £14.95) my attention was taken by a section where the subject protests strongly against judging athletes by their style, a process he describes as "superficial". It was hardly surprising, I suppose, that a runner who managed to win a succession of Olympic titles while appearing to be on the point of physical collapse should speak out against the tyranny of style.

"I have so often been criticised for not having a beautiful style," Zatopek wrote. "My answer has always been that I shall learn to have a better style once they start judging races according to their stylishness. So long as it's a question of speed, then my attention will be directed to seeing how fast I can cover the ground. When I began, they used to say that the way I ran was impossible. Then when I started to break records the critics said that was the way to do it!... How often has it happened that an athlete with a so-called classical style has never achieved anything much?"

So far as one can judge from those who watched him performing, witnessing Zatopek's manifest struggles en route to his achievements was an essential part of the experience.

Czechoslovakia's most successful athlete was a man with whom every spectator could identify. The same dynamic occurs nowadays with runners such as Paula Radcliffe, whose striving is so demonstrable.

Radcliffe's action has been modified by necessity – when she enters oxygen debt her eyes roll up, and so she has to lift her head to see where she is going, which makes her seem as if she is nodding. That quirk of nature only points up the efforts she makes in her races, and heightens the sense of involvement in those who look on.

Seeing the likes of Radcliffe, and, it would appear, Zatopek cross the line, the average athletics fan sighs with relief. Their – and our – suffering is over. And if they have managed to win in extremis, there is an additional sense of justice having being done. It wasn't pretty, but no one could have deserved it more...

And yet Zatopek's protestations cannot hide the fact that there is an aesthetic in athletics to which neither he nor his like have contributed.

The classical style he criticises by implication has a compelling quality when it is allied to genuine achievement. I find myself thinking immediately of two Britons in this context: David Hemery and Seb Coe.

Unlike Kriss Akabusi, the man who eventually surpassed his British and then world record for the 400 metres hurdles, Hemery was a natural sprint hurdler who had moved up rather than a 400 metres runner who had learnt to jump at the right time.

His Olympic victory in 1968 was fluent and upright – so classical that they might as well have put a laurel crown on his head rather than a gold medal around his neck.

Coe was another British competitor capable of transforming the hard act of running into something apparently effortless. Something about seeing this slight figure accelerate suddenly away from his straining rivals over 800 metres or a mile was unforgettable.

While his great rival Steve Ovett used to paralyse the field with his habitual power and arrogance around the final bend, Coe would dart away from them like a startled animal.

At 800m, no one matched him, either in terms of style or performance, until Denmark's adopted Kenyan Wilson Kipketer arrived on the scene in the mid 1990s.

I will not forget seeing Kipketer, frustrated in his desire to run at the previous year's Olympics because of red tape over his citizenship, demonstrate his pre-eminence at the 1997 World Indoor Championships at Paris.

The four laps he put together to set the current world indoor record of 1min 42.67sec were as close to perfection as I have ever seen. Even in the early stages of the race, when he was one of the jostling pack, you could pick him out by the measure of his long stride, and when he decided the time was right to take the lead it was as if a gazelle had been let loose on the Bercy track.

The only other time I have experienced that sense of wonder in an athletic performance was at the 1992 Olympics, where Carl Lewis, who had failed to earn an individual 100 metres place, demonstrated that he was still peerless in terms of style as he anchored the United States to the sprint relay title. Fresh for the challenge, he left his rivals behind him as if he had his own individual following wind.

In celebrating Zatopek, we celebrate striving humanity. In witnessing performances such as Lewis's in Barcelona we applaud a thing of beauty.

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