Quicksilver: The Mercurial Emil Zatopek
by Pat Butcher
Globerunner Productions, 2016
A four-time Olympic champion across three distances, Zatopek is on the short list for the greatest runner of all time. He was also known as a charismatic, generous, and indominable spirit who could not be beaten even by the machinery of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party. Yet despite the fact that he was someone you’d want to read about, there were very few biographies available.
That changed in 2016, with three major biographies released all in the same year: Butcher’s Quicksilver, Richard Askwith’s Today We Die A Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, The Greatest Olympic Runner Of All Time, and Rick Broadbent’s Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek.
You can’t go wrong with any of the three. All are well-written and informative. I felt I could put only one on this list so I went with Quicksilver. Jonathan Gault reviewed all three for LetsRun.com and said they all “discuss the details of Zátopek’s training, but Butcher does the best job of distilling the monumental impact Zátopek had on elite running.” He also note that Butcher’s book spends a good deal of time profiling Zatopek’s contemporaries, men like Gordon Pirie, Alain Mimoun and Jan Haluza, all of whom might deserve their own biographies.
Zatopek was more than a runner, he was someone who changed everything. That did not end when he stopped racing; he once literally stood up to Soviet tanks.
Beer and Brine: The Making of Walter George, Athletics’ First Superstar
by Rob Hadgraft
Desert Island Books, 2007
Last year I said my Christmas wish list included a Paula Radcliffe bobbled and a Rob Hadgraft boxed set, because neither one exists even though it should. Hadgraft is a newspaper writer and runner whose hobby is researching sports history, and he has produced six great books on long-forgotten stars. The one I chose for this list is his biography of Walter George, the 19th-century British miler and distance runner who used the new railroads and steamships to become the world’s first sports superstar—one of his match races drew 30,000 to an 8,000-capacity stadium. Others he’s written are The Little Wonder: The Untold Story of Alf Shrubb, World Champion Runner (2004), about the the Haile Gebrselassie of the pre-WWI period who set dozens of records over many different distances before turning to the hardscrabble pro ranks and still going nearly ten years without a defeat. Then he turned to Deerfoot: Athletics’ Noble Savage (2007), the story of the Native American who toured England’s 19th-century pro racing circuit, a gambling-oriented working-class sport whose style is reminiscent of today’s pro wrestling (and whose results at times were just as predetermined). Hadgraft’s fourth book was Tea With Mr. Newton: 100,000 Miles – The Longest “Protest March” In History, about the South African farmer who took up running at age 38 to publicize his cause in a government land dispute and startlingly became a record-setting ultramarathoner. Next was Plimsolls On, Eyeballs Out: The Rise and Horrendous Fall of Marathon Legend Jim Peters (2011), about the champion 1950s English marathoner whose racing style was as subtle as a sledgehammer. His most recent work is Sydney Wooderson: A Very British Hero (2018), about the now-forgotten middle-distance star of the 1930s and 40s. Racingpast.com calls these “intensely-researched and affectionately written biographies” and all are worth reading–if you can find them.
For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey From Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr
by Duncan Hamilton
Penguin Press, 2016
Liddell is among the more interesting characters in the history of track and field, a man is driven by religious fervor and faith and his story inspired the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire. Many biographies have been written about the man, but I chose this one because it is written from a somewhat objective viewpoint rather than a proselytizing one. Hamilton, twice chosen as the U.K.’s top sportswriter, divides the book into thirds. The first covers his birth in China to missionaries through his 1924 Olympic triumph. The second covers his post-Olympic life back in China as an evangelist and teacher. The last covers the outbreak of World War II to his death in an internment camp. If there is a criticism of the book it is the heroic terms in which Liddell is described – but those terms come from interviews with people who lived with him during the war and survived to tell about it, in no small part due to Liddell’s efforts on their behalf. If you’ve ever watched Chariots and wondered what came next, here is your answer.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand
Random House, 2010
Is it a track and field book if only a minority of the book deals with that subject? Maybe. This issue is the only reason Unbroken is not in my top ten. The first part of this life story of Louis Zamperini deals with him as a runner: national high school record holder, NCAA champion, and 1936 Olympic sensation who was everyone’s favorite to come back and win in 1940. But then, the war…
“Zamp” signed up to be an Army bomber pilot. He got shot down over the Pacific and managed to survive adrift in a raft for 47 days before getting rescued—by the Japanese, who beat and tortured him. Every ensuing chapter is yet another turn for the worse. Some stories are so special that anyone can make them page-turners (as Zamp did in his autobiography Devil At My Heels) but in the hands of Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit) this one is truly great.
The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop
by Bill Jones
Pegasus Books, 2011
You’d swear this was made up unless you saw the “nonfiction” designation on the book jacket. John Tarrant took £17 in expenses in a teenage boxing match, and in 1950s Britain that meant when he fell in love with running he found he was banned for life from amateur long-distance races. He’d show up in disguise or otherwise hidden, jump in as an unregistered competitor, and defy and outrun enraged officials. He became a folk hero of sorts in the running community. Then he took up ultramarathoning, which led him to South Africa and again battling officials, this time over apartheid.
Pirie is mostly a forgotten man these days, but he was a massive figure in the 1950s British sporting press. He was an Olympic silver medalist and a world record holder, but he was brash and outspoken bordering on arrogant. His training, severe by English standards of the time, dragged British distance running into postwar modernity. This is no hagiographic life story; Pirie had extremes of good and bad in him and Booth’s biography captures them all.
by Tom Jordan
Track and Field News Press, 1977
Believe it or don’t, but there was a whole decade when this book was available only out of ads in the back of Track and Field News or Runner’s World and few teenage runners knew who Steve Prefontaine was. The original version was published just two years after Prefontaine’s untimely death and was written by a man who knew him well: Jordan is now managing the Prefontaine Classic for the 37th consecutive year. If you had this book in the 1980s or 90s, you felt like you were transported back to a mythical time and place where a runner was the biggest sports star in an entire state.
His Own Man: Otto Peltzer: Champion Athlete, Nazi Victim, Indian Hero
by Donald Macgregor and Timothy Johnston
Pitch Publishing, 2016
In 1962, one of the last combined German track and field teams toured the developing nations of Asia and defeated them all with ease in dual meets. Then they came to Delhi, where an unheralded Indian national team matched them in event after event. At the end of the second day, the Germans were stunned to find they had lost. And then they found the Indians were trained by an unknown, haggard 62-year-old German who lived a lone and meager existence, subsisting on handouts. Well, mostly unknown: a German journalist recognized him as “Otto the Strange”, Dr. Otto Peltzer, the German champion who broke world records at 800, 1000, and 1500 meters in the 1920s.
How did he get here? How did he get that name? What happened to him in between the 1920s and 1960s, when A LOT of things happened and especially in Germany? He and his story are bizarre and fascinating, and this book won the International Society of Olympic Historian’s Karl Lennartz Memorial Book Award.
by James McNeish
Lovelock, a Rhodes Scholar and Oxford medical student in the 1930s, won the 1936 Olympic 1500 meters with a race that was described as nearly perfect, setting a world record while defeating the best field of milers ever assembled at the time. Thirteen years later he died when he fell underneath a New York subway train. Did he commit suicide? No one really knows. McNeish wrote this fictionalized biography as if it were a journal kept by Lovelock, one of the most enigmatic characters in track history.
A Cold Clear Day: The Athletic Biography of Buddy Edelen
by Frank Murphy
Wind Sprint, 1992
Murphy is a lawyer by profession but has written three of the best nonfiction track books around. The other two are The Last Protest (see “Top Ten”) and The Silence of Great Distance (see “History”). This was his first effort, the story of America’s only marathoner of note between Clarence DeMar and Frank Shorter. Edelen was a Minnesota native who said he truly became a distance runner the day he moved to England. Immersed in the British road-racing and cross-country culture, his finest moment was setting the marathon world record in 1963.
by D.H. Potts
Track and Field News Press, 1993
Lon Myers ran for the Manhattan Athletic Club in the 1880s and 90s and at one time or another held every American record from 50 yards to the mile. He could be a flamboyant racer; he set a world record for 440 yards after losing a shoe with more than 100 yards to go, and once finished a race running sideways, Ricky Bobby style, while in conversation with an opponent who claimed he could beat Myers. Potts was a writer and historian for Track and Field News who expertly communicated just how different American track and field was in its infancy. Example: you could get boxed in around the turn in the 220 yards!
The King of Spring: The Life and Times of Peter O’Connor
by Mark Quinn
Liffey Press, 2004
In 1901 O’Connor set a long jump world record that would last for 20 years, and stand as an Irish national record for more than 90 years. He was also a sprinter and high- and triple-jumper, and the book explores his rivalries with Americans Alvin Kraenzlein and Meyer Prinstein. Even more important is the exploration of O’Connor’s Olympic exploits which raised issues that last even until today. O’Connor was Irish but there was no free Irish state until 17 years after his last Olympics, and those tensions play a large role in the story.
The Perfect Jump
by Dick Schaap
New American Library, 1976
Dick Schaap was known in the 90s as the host of ESPN’s The Sports Reporters, but in the three decades before that, he was a groundbreaking sportswriter. This is his story of Bob Beamon, whose Mexico City long jump record was so beyond description that it created a new word, Beamonesque.
Jeremy Schaap, Dick’s son and a great writer in his own right, called this one of his top five Olympic books of all time:
Growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1960s, Beamon was deemed incorrigible by his teachers and hauled off to a school for those from whom nothing was expected. More than anything, the book is about a life touched for an instant by perfection.
Left unsaid was what happens afterward, and it was generally not good for Beamon. After a long period of trouble, Beamon has righted himself and tells the rest of the story in The Man Who Could Fly (Genesis Press, 1999).
Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics
by Jeremy Schaap
Mariner Books, 2007
Numerous biographies have been written about Owens but I chose Schaap’s as the most accurate. We’ve often been told that Owens destroyed Hitler’s notions of racial superiority, but that ignores some inconvenient facts, including that he had zero effect on American notions of racial superiority. Owens was never above telling a good story if it was what his audience wanted to hear, even if untrue, and Schaap does his best to find the truth.
Terry Fox: His Story (Revised)
by Leslie Scrivener
McClelland & Stewart, 2000
I hate “inspiring stories”. Especially inspiring stories of runners. I mean, you just go and you do the thing. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. All the time you try. It’s a crutch if you need the inspiration to go out and do this. Yet all you have to do is mention “Terry Fox” and the tears well up in my eyes.
No Canadian needs to be told the story, you already know it. He was voted #2 in CBC’s list of the Greatest Canadians, and he’s the only Canadian to ever appear on Canadian money. It says a lot about a country that they revere someone who literally died trying.
Fox was a star teenage athlete who lost a leg to bone cancer at the age of 19. He was so disturbed by the children he saw suffering from and dying in the cancer ward that in 1980 he decided to try to run across Canada – on one leg – to raise money for cancer research: $1 for every person in Canada (24 million at that time).
Canada is big. Very big. It was going to be somewhere around 6,000 miles. His mission was unknown when he began in Newfoundland but became a national sensation by the time he hit Toronto. He stopped in Thunder Bay, 5,373 kilometers into his “Marathon of Hope” because he fell ill again. Cancer had come back and spread to his lungs. He never started again and died the next summer; his funeral was carried live on national television, and his $24 million had already been raised. To date, the Terry Fox Foundation has raised more than $750 million for research.
Virgin Territory: The Story of Craig Virgin, America’s Renaissance Runner
by Randy Sharer
Blackjack Road Publishing, 2017
Despite the fact that he never won a medal at the Olympics or outdoor World Championships, I would put Craig Virgin on the short list of greatest American distance runners of all time. He was dominant from high school through college and into his late 30s. He was a three-time Olympian at 10,000 meters and narrowly missed the world record in 1980. He was a two-time World Cross Country champion, the only American man to ever have won that race. Shortly after the second of those he entered the 1981 Boston Marathon at the behest of his sponsor, and despite a lack of specific training he finished second in 2:10:26. All of these great accomplishments were achieved despite a dizzying array of injuries and illnesses: mononucleosis, knee surgery, a bulging disc, a detached retina, a kidney removal.
Why Die? The Extraordinary Percy Cerutty, Maker of Champions
by Graem Sims
Cerutty appears in the BBC’s excellent The Four Minute Mile TV movie as the coach of Australia’s John Landy. He is shown as a ridiculous character, reminiscent of Terry Jones’ portrayal of the man about to be stoned to death in Life of Brian. Surely there had to be more to the coach who drove Australia to the top of the running world in the 1950s. Sims tells us the remarkable life of a man whose response to a health crisis at age 43 was to go back to nature and become a particularly Australian version of Jack Lalane. He truly was a nutjob and an entertaining one, but he got the best out of the athletes willing to work with him.
The next section of the best list of books will cover memoirs…