Last lap of the track. The crowd yells “Zatopek! Zatopek! Zatopek!” Everyone gets to their feet and there is a deafening roar as the Czech locomotive crosses the line first to take gold yet again, the only athlete ever to have won three gold medals for the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon during the same Olympic Games.
But this is not Helsinki in 1952. This is Switzerland in 2018, and the athlete is the comedian, poet and musician Thierry Romanens. “I’d been wanting to create a performance around literature and music when I stumbled upon a book by French author Jean Echenoz called Courir [Running]. The title intrigued me as it immediately made me think of the rhythm, the music of running, the pounding of the feet, the breathing. Also, I knew Zatopek as this mythical runner I had heard of through my dad. What I liked about the book was the theatrical and musical adventure we could build from it.”
By his own admission, Romanens was not a runner, having not put on running shoes since his student days. Embarking on the project, the rst thing he did was go for a run with the three jazz musicians who were going to create the score for the play. “I had asked the trio to read the book and to think about what it invoked in terms of musical composition. Zatopek being from the Czech Republic, we thought that might provide some musical angle. Then we went for a run and, since we’re at different levels, it was interesting for us to experience the physical act of running – especially for those of us who were a bit rusty – and the different rhythms.”
This is an interesting parallel, since Zatopek’s first foray into running was forced upon him in his teens by the sports coach at Bata, the shoe factory where he worked. Zatopek had not previously been interested in physical activity, but coming second in his first race gave him the determination to train so he could win the next one. He would famously go on to qualify for the Czech national team and for the 1948 London Olympics, where he won the 10,000m.
“His will to win at any cost and to go far beyond his limits was immense. The book talks a lot about his need to push himself to exhaustion and beyond – up to the point of fainting on the finish line, and I’m not sure whether this comes from this particular part of history, where the times and circumstances gave people a different relation to pain”. In the book, Echenoz says that ‘running allowed Zatopek to think about something else’ – and that something else was the war that was raging, the German and then Russian occupation, which might have been what Zatopek was trying to escape.”
Running gave Zatopek two relative freedoms: first, to swap the tough working conditions of the factory for the army; but then also to escape the strict military life by travelling to international events. In his stage adaptation of Zatopek’s story, Romanens places himself as the raconteur, the commentator and also as the main character – the athlete – experiencing the races as they happen. The play’s heart is built around the key races that created the Zatopek legend. But the performance is more than a historical sports commentary; Romanens also addresses the larger story, exploring war, oppression and repetitive factory work. These elements also influence the score, created to support and enhance, “like in the cinema, where the music allows the public to get into the dramaturgy of the race”.
Romanens’ performance is physical; the comedian runs around the stage while telling Zatopek’s story, commentating on a race or taking on the role of one of the many officials. “The style of writing of the book lent itself naturally to an active performance, with the key racing vividly described in short sentences,” says Romanens. “When adapting the book for the stage, I loved the challenge of alternating me being Zatopek while also commentating, and the challenge to try to balance the description of the race, together with the feelings of being Zatopek mid-race and the feelings of victory.
His will to win at any cost and to go far beyond his limits was immense.
I also loved the crowd jubilation and total infatuation for the hero, which is quite rare to experience in theatre – the spontaneous, exploding joy of a stadium, rather than the more traditional intellectual response. So with the musicians we had to think of how we’d try and bring this to life.” And it seems that they managed to strike the right balance, with “reactions we’ve been getting from the audience sending us straight back 70 years to those historical events, so I’m hoping that we’re doing justice to a hero by allowing people who were not around at the time to get a feel for what happened then.”
The book is not classical biography, but more of a novel from Zatopek’s perspective, with a large part left to the imagination of the spectator/reader. “It left me feeling Zatopek as someone with a great capacity for acceptance and renouncement, in such a permanent oppression that his own fight was directed more against his own psychological and physical barriers, rather than against the system. Of course he was humiliated by the system, by the officials, but we feel like he would keep running in his head as his sole personal mission, as the only thing that was open to him at the time.”
“In the background, we have the political situation of dictatorship, and I like that the story reminds us of what can happen when one individual decides to take over everyone’s life, and the fact that for now, most of us reading this will not be limited by such context.”
And for Romanens and his acolytes, the next step is to take the performance – the life of Zatopek and its political undertones – to an old stadium in Biel, Switzerland, the dilapidated state of which might befit the story. The performers hope that this will entice people who might otherwise feel a bit intimidated by theatre, to experience the play in a less formal, more accessible environment.
Julie Freeman is the co-founder of Like the Wind magazine and a web developer by trade. A Swiss with a love for long uphills, she needs a good 30 miles to warm up. @sistak