Making a man out of a legend

SALZBURG, Austria – I’ve been traveling around Europe for the past four weeks. My journeys have taken me from the West to the East and back again, through the Soviet Bloc and across the Alps. There have been numerous castles, museums and galleries to capture my attention. But everything I’ve seen and done pales when compared with one cool sunny spring day. On a crisp Sunday afternoon I was lucky enough to have coffee with the man I idolize.

His name is Emil Zatopek and he lives in Prague as he has all his life. Zatopek was Olympic champion in the 5000, 10,000 and marathon in the 1952 games, the only man to in all three distance events. What is more, he did it in the span of ten days.

Yet there is far more to this man than simple athletics. Zatopek spoke out for the freedoms denied his countrymen under Soviet domination. In 1968, during the so-called “Prague Spring,” Zatopek was in the forefront of the resistance to Communist repression. When the Soviets eventually crushed the rebellion, he was stripped of his job, his livelihood. He lived in obscurity until the fall of Communism.

I don’t think I can relate what it feels like to talk to one’s idol. I’ve set to reconcile the experience with my own understanding. For me, Emil Zatopek has always seemed larger than life, a man capable of anything. Instead, when meeting him with lump in my throat and heart pounding, I found the man to be surprisingly mortal. He is an elderly man with a bad hip, shaking hands and a taste for Budvar beer. He smiles frequently, but mostly out of uncertainty. He speaks to me in broken English and I to him in my few words of Czech.

Admittedly at first I was disappointed with my visit. I had expected a grandfatherly type telling me stories of his exploits, his successes and his failures, all with great enthusiasm. What I got was a tired old man, still friendly and wonderful, but on whom time had taken its toll.

It strikes me that there’s a lesson to be learned here. It’s very easy for us to build up in our own minds those whom we admire. We do this unfairly. I had let the legend of this man dominate my thinking to the point where he was no longer just a man. I thought of him in terms of absolutes, the fastest, the strongest, the most admirable and reality then had to intrude on that perception.

Such a situation exists in everyday life as well with people we deal with on a regular basis. With figures in public life, our friends, relatives, acquaintances even professors there is an urge to place these people on a pedestal that is a position difficult to maintain. In doing so we deny these people the benefits of being flawed as all of us are. Around me everyday I see people becoming disillusioned as those they admire disappoint them. I think we may be the ones who bear the responsibility for our own disillusionment by asking those we admire to be any more than merely human.

As for me and Zatopek, well, my perceptions have changed. The Zatopek I had known, from the press and legend, is gone. I’m left with an old man, still with a glint in his eye, who soon will pass away. But at least he is a man and not some mythic construction of my mind. Maybe after the real Emil Zatopek is gone that legend will exist and become something tenable. But as long as we still have the real thing then I prefer the man and no longer intend to make him compete with a legend that can’t really exist.