Emil Zatopek was one of the greatest runners of the 20th century. A man of humble beginnings, he was the sixth of eight children, born in 1922 to a carpenter in Moravia. Little about his tranquil rural upbringing, aside perhaps from regular physical activity, would suggest that he was destined for greatness. His athletic achievements in the Olympic arena, primarily at the 1952 Games in Helsinki, are without peer. It is, however, his attitude to life and his personality, captured by quotes oft cited to this day, for which he is just as revered.
A beast awakened
Following Emil’s idyllic if somewhat economically challenging childhood, he was fortunate to have been picked as part of an intake of 100 teenage boys to complete an apprenticeship at the local shoe factory. One day the factory sports coach, by all accounts an intimidating and terrifying character, chose four boys (Zatopek included) to participate in a footrace across the city. Despite Emil’s protests, which included a feigned knee injury, he was coerced to take part. The race awakened the sleeping beast, as he suddenly found that he desperately wanted to win. His second place garnered an invitation to join the local running club up the hill from the factory, which he gladly accepted.
When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Zatopek took solace in running. In his own words, “During the war, for me, being in the club was a great pleasure. Because it was a sad time, not a favourable time. It was not allowed to dance, maybe. It was not possible to buy chocolate, maybe. It was very trieste, very sad. But the stadium, oh, it was very nice. We you boys had not only training but pleasure, too. To run. To jump. To have fun”.
Zatopek spent the next five years training and competing only in his native Czechoslovakia, after which he was accepted for officer training at the Czech military academy. This was an ideal situation, for his superiors encouraged him to train. And train he did. Now credited as one of the forbearers of interval training for distance runners (a revolutionary idea at the time, which, together with his ungainly running gait, earned him scorn and ridicule from competitors and coaches alike) he would sprint 400 metre intervals, with 200 metre recoveries in between, forty times a day. Aside from his brutal interval sessions, he invariably trained in heavy army boots and regularly in the snow. His reasoning for combining these elements was simple – “Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I must learn how to run fast”. In competition, the burden of his heavy boots removed, he was suddenly very fleet of foot indeed (if somewhat loud; his nickname likening both his pace and the sound of his breathing to that of a locomotive).
The world takes notice
In 1947, the merits of his unconventional methods bore fruit and he silenced his detractors. In his first 5,000m race that year, he clocked the second fastest time ever and was undefeated over that distance for the rest of the season. At the 1948 Olympics in London the following year, he was favourite for the event, but placed second by 0.2 seconds. He had entered the 10,000 metres, but faced Viljo Heino of Finland, who had held the world record for the previous four years. As was the case with his training, Zatopek’s strategy was cunning in its simplicity. He targeted 71 second laps throughout the race and had asked a friend to sit in the crowd and wave a red shirt every time the pace “slackened”. Zatopek sat comfortably in the middle of the pack until the 8th lap, as the end of which the red shirt appeared. He burst through the pack into the lead and was unchallenged for the rest of the race, winning by 48 seconds. His performance, while impressive, would pale into insignificance four years later.
In 1949, Emil achieved his first world record, running 29m28s in the 10,000m. This earned the respect of his military superiors, and their disappointment when Heino eclipsed him days later. They firmly suggested that he run again, to which he replied that he needed three weeks without military duty so that he could focus on his training. Three weeks later, he reclaimed the world record, knocking six seconds off Heino’s mark. Zatopek was just warming up. The following year, he beat his own world record by 18 seconds and won gold medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m at the European Championships, despite having fallen sick from eating spoiled goose.
Zatopek’s attempt at the 1 hour world record in 1951 was subsequently referred to by Australian distance legend Ron Clarke as “probably the best performance ever”. As one of only six people in history to have run 10,000m in under 30 minutes, Zatopek became the first person to achieve this twice, consecutively, and completed 20km in 59m51s. Roll on Helsinki, the 1952 Games, ahead of which Zatopek had been undefeated in the 10,000m since his victory at the previous Games.
Ahead of the Games, Zatopek had fallen ill with a gland infection, a blessing in disguise that prevented him from overtraining. Days before the Games, one of his team mates was omitted due to his father’s political allegiance. Zatopek boldly declared that he would not leave the country without him. The Communists acquiesced in the nick of time, and both athletes boarded the plane for Helsinki. Some commented that Zatopek was the only man in Czechoslovakia who could have got away with such a stunt. When he arrived in Helsinki, the Finns, far from being angered that he had taken the world record from their beloved Heino, adopted him as one of their own, and called him “satu pekka”, meaning “fairy-tale guy”.
Zatopek had earned the respect of his competitors and captured the imagination of the world, not only for his achievements and ability, but for his humility. He said, “To boast of a performance that I cannot beat is merely stupid vanity. And if I can beat it that means there is nothing special about it”. He had entered the 5,000m and 10,000m. His favoured event, the 10,000m, was first. Roger Bannister (he of four minute mile fame) recounts a story that illustrates Zatopek’s character. The night before the race, an Austrian reporter burst into his room seeking an interview. Far from evicting the man, Zatopek granted him an audience for twenty minutes and thereafter offered him half his bed when he realised that the reporter didn’t have one of his own.
The following day, starting positions were dictated alphabetically, placing Zatopek in the third and last row. His competitors ushered him to the front and he won in an Olympic record time, repeating this feat in the 5,000m and on both occasions beating his great friend, Alan Mimoun of France, into silver. Later that day, it was his turn to support. He had married Dana Igrova, a fellow team member, shortly after the London Games, on 19 September 1948, their joint 26th birthday. As she emerged to partake in the javelin, she spotted her spouse and yelled, “Where is your gold medal? Give it to me. I’ll bring it for good luck”. She promptly beat her personal best by two metres and earned her own Olympic gold. Zatopek later insisted that his 5,000m victory had inspired his wife. She invited him to see if he could inspire anyone else to beat her.
The couple was not finished with the Helsinki Games. Zatopek decided at the last minute to enter his first marathon. Jim Peters of the UK was the record holder at the time and favourite for the event. Again, Zatopek’s strategy was simple. Acknowledging his blatant lack of experience, he decided to shadow Peters. Peters, unnerved, set off in a startled fashion, running 15h43 for the first 5km. His reckless pace soon caught up with him, as did Zatopek at the 20km mark:
Zatopek won his fourth Olympic gold by two and a half minutes, once again in Olympic record time. Of his victory, he said, “If you want to win something, run the 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run a marathon”.
In the wake of the 1952 Games, Emil was asked to cite his most impressive accomplishment. Surely three gold medals in eight days would be a contender. Zatopek’s replied, “For some reason our housekeeper never liked me. But after the 1952 Games, she said ‘I am now your friend’ ”.
Not quite finished
A few months later, Zatopek added the 30km world record to his 10k, 15k and 20k world marks. His military superiors, somewhat hard to please it seems, sternly pointed out that the 5k was an Olympic event, yet he did not hold the world record. They asked him simply, “Can you get it?” Again, he requested a three week “sabbatical”. This time, he ran fifty 400m intervals in the morning and another fifty in the afternoon, every day for two weeks. He then flew to Paris, rested for a week and launched his assault. Four kilometres into the race, he was three seconds off world record pace. After a final kilometre of 2m43s, he eclipsed the world record by a second. The very next day, he became the first person ever to run under 29 minutes for the 10,000m, a distance over which he triumphed on 38 consecutive occasions from 1948 to 1954. At the 1956 Games, Zatopek attempted the marathon but, suffering from a hernia that he had contracted while carrying his wife in another bout of innovative training, he managed only sixth place. He was delighted for the winner, Mimoun of France (silver medallist to Zatopek’s gold in the 5,000m at the 1948 Games and 5,000m and 10,000m at the 1952 Games).
When Zatopek passed away in late 2000, he commanded large obituaries from newspapers worldwide, most of which centred on his status as one of the best loved sportspeople the world had ever seen. Always humble, he kept no trophies in his house, having given them all away to friends and fans. His generosity is perhaps best illustrated by his gift to Ron Clarke, who was heavily criticised in his native Australia for his Olympic performances and who Zatopek believed was a greater runner than his Olympic record suggested. Clarke broke 17 world records but his best Olympic result was a 10,000m bronze at the 1964 Games. In 1966 at an airport in Prague, Zatopek pressed a small package into Clarke’s hand and said “look after this, you deserve it”. When Clarke opened the package on the plane, he found Zatopek’s 10,000m Olympic gold medal from Helsinki.
Clarke said, “No-one cherishes any gift more than I do this: my only Olympic gold medal; and not because of what it is… but because of the man whose spirit it represents. His enthusiasm, his friendliness, his love of life, shone through every moment. There is no and never was a greater man than Emil Zatopek”.