Today We Die A Little: Emil Zátopek, Olympic Legend to Cold War Hero (2016)



Today We Die A Little is my attempt to tell the full, extraordinary story of my lifelong hero – the man Runner’s World named in 2013 as the greatest runner, over any distance, of all time.

No runner has spawned so many legends as Emil Zátopek, the Czechoslovak soldier who in the decade following the Second World War revolutionised distance-running. He won five Olympic medals (including gold in his first attempt at a marathon), set 18 world records, and went undefeated over 10,000 metres for six years. In doing so, he redefined the boundaries of human endurance. His training sessions defied belief, many of them performed in Army boots, in snow, in sand, in darkness – even, some said, with his wife on his back.

His toughness was matched by a spirit of generous friendship that transcended nationality and politics in the darkest days of the Cold War. His warm heart and eccentric joie de vivre charmed the world. He dropped one of his gold medals in a swimming pool; another, famously, he gave away.

In the Prague Spring of 1968, Zátopek was an energetic champion of “socialism with a human face”. When Soviet tanks moved in to crush Czechoslovakia’s new freedoms, he paid a high price. Expelled from the Army and stripped of his role in sport, he was condemned to years of hard and degrading manual labour, far from his home and his adored wife. By the time he was fully rehabilitated, two decades later, he was a shadow of the man he had been – and the world had all but forgotten him.

Based on extensive research in the Czech Republic, interviews with people across the world who knew him, and some wonderful support and encouragement from Emil’s widow, fellow Olympian Dana Zátopková, Today We Die A Little is an attempt to get beyond the usual myths and anecdotes and discover the real man behind the legend.

It has been a challenging book to research and write. I have discovered that my hero had flaws as well as wonderful human qualities. There was tragedy in his life as well as joy and glory. Yet the true, complex, occasionally heart-breaking story of Emil Zátopek is if anything even more exhilarating than the generally accepted comic-book version. No one has ever understood or embodied the romance of running so life-enhancingly as Emil did, and with so much top-level sport now hopelessly corrupted by the cold, cash-driven, win-at-all-costs mentality, the story of his brave, generous-spirited life is as inspiring and relevant as it has ever been.

I just hope that I have done him justice…

What they’re saying:

“A wonderfully in-depth and often emotionally charged piece of writing” – Athletics Weekly

“An astonishing achievement… There are few writers as adept at capturing so lyrically the utter and incomprehensible strangeness of distance running… A joy to read.” – Literary Review

“Before Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe, there was Emil Zátopek – a Czechoslovakian soldier turned long-distance runner turned Cold War victim. His four Olympic golds, 18 world records and Communist party career are all laid bare in this definitive account” – Shortlist

“Reminds us of the pain and the glory behind every victory and the power of sport to bring people together and make history.” – Martina Navratilova, nine-time Wimbledon champion

“A tale from athletics’ age of innocence… He was a sporting hero not just for his time but for all time” – Spectator

“A fine work. It is rare to find a biography better researched than this one” –

“A warm, honest and moving account of one of the greatest sportsmen of all time. Richard brings to life both the epic triumphs [and] the difficulties and complexities of Zátopek’s role in Communist Czechoslovakia.” Adharanand Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans and The Way of the Runner

“Sport book of the year… A fascinating tale, showing all sides of Zátopek, injecting humanity and humour into a dramatic life” – Matt Butler “i”

“Terrific” – Huw Richards, Guardian

“A portrait of a fine but flawed human being” – Nick Pitt, Sunday Times – Best Sports Books of 2016

“Worth reading, and not just for diehard athletics fans or Cold War buffs” – Outside

“A tremendous read” – Irish Times

“A powerful look at one of the greatest Olympic champions of all time… Riveting… Zátopek had a great heart — he was not just an iconic athlete; he was a peacemaker.” – Bill Rodgers, Olympic runner and four-times winner of the New York and Boston Marathons

“Of all the new non-fiction books with Olympic connections, this is the finest and most inspiring” – The National

Other background:

Read my article in The Independent summing up Emil Zátopek’s story here.

Read my account of writing the book on the Waterstones blog here.

Read an interview about the book on the Guardian running blog here.

Read a review of the book on my favourite US running blog here.

Audio and video:

Hear me discuss Today We Die A Little with Dotun Adebayo on Radio 5 Live’s Up All Nighthere (from 2:35)

Or hear a shorter interview on Newstalk Radio’s Moncrieff Showhere.

Or find Radio Prague’s interview with me here.

And there’s a big Connect Run Club interview with me here.


Today We Die A Little has been short-listed for the Cross Sports Book Awards in the Biography of the Year category and was long listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award.


Buy Today We Die A Little on click here.


Buy the US edition of Today We Die A Little on click here.


Buy the Czech edition of Today We Die A Little on click here.


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Looking for Czech translation services? I recommend: Petr Bráník

Looking for accommodation in Prague? I recommend: Pension Atelier 12 

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