Emil Zatopek 1922-2000 - a symbol of freedom
by Giorgio Reineri. .taken from MASTER"S TRACK & FIELD NEWS by Ross
Dunton. . . .sign up for it here
He had celebrated his seventy-eighth birthday just a short while ago, Emil Zatopek:
to be more precise, on 19
September and, as he lifted his glass to toast his wife Dana – herself born on the
same day, in the same
year – his hands trembled making it impossible for him to bring the glass to his
Once again, it was she who encouraged and helped him. For over half a century, Dana
Ingrova) had been by his side. She had been there in the centre of the Olympic stadium
in Helsinki on that
day in the summer of 1952, during one of the most spectacular and celebrated races
in the history of
athletics, when her thirty-year-old husband won the 5000m in a dramatic sprint finish
against the great stars
of the day: Alain Mimoun, Herbert Schade, Gordon Pirie and Chris Chataway.
She was there, but not by chance: just a few minutes later, Dana Zatopkova threw
the javelin 50.47 metres to
win the Olympic title and for the first (and up until today, the last) time ever,
a husband and wife became
Olympic champions on the same day, during the same Games. However, Emil had an advantage
in the medal stakes as he had already, a few days before, won gold in the 10,000
metres. But to those who
asked him whether that wasn’t a good enough lead, he replied: "Two to one looks
like a narrow margin to
me. To put matters straight and increase my prestige there is only one thing to do:
I must run and win the
And so Zatopek ran and won in 2 hours 23:03.2, more than two minutes head of the
Gordo and more than three ahead of the London Olympic champion Delfo Cabrera, also
of Argentina. Great
Britain’s Jim Peters, who only six weeks before had run the world’s best time of
2:20:42.2 held the lead for
much of the race, trying to shake off the Czech by running a fast pace. In fact,
the only problem for Zatopek,
who had never run a marathon, was that of finding his rhythm. So it was that he ran
alongside Peters and
around kilometre 20, asked him in English: "The pace? It is good enough?".
Peters, who was already tiring,
tried to bluff him: "Pace too slow," he replied.
Zatopek thought over this reply in silence as they ran along for a while. Then he
turned to Peters again: "You
say, too slow. Are you sure tha pace is too slow?"
"Yes," returned the exhausted but proud Peters.
Zatopek dropped back a pace or two, lowered his head on his shoulders, grimaced and
started pounding the
asphalt. A few kilometres down the road, Peters had dropped back out of sight and
Zatopek was Sweden’s Gustav Jansson.
As they reached a refreshment station, Zatopek saw Jansson take and eat a slice of
lemon. If it is good for
him, thought the Czech who was unused to eating and drinking whilst running, I will
take two the next time.
But by the time the next station was reached, Jansson too had dropped out of sight
and so Zatopek decided
that maybe the lemon was not such a good idea after all.
And so he continued to run on alone, finally relaxing his face a little and starting
to wave back to the crowd
who were cheering him on.
The triumphant reception he received as he entered the Olympic stadium is one of
the most moving
moments in the history of sport: not just for the tumultuous applause of the spectators,
but also because
something that nobody could have imagined happened. The Jamaican 4x400 relay team
of Arthur Wint,
Leslie Laing, Herbert McKinley and George Rhoden, who had just set a world record
as they beat the
American team, hoisted Zatopek to their shoulders and carried him on a lap of honour.
That spontaneous gesture by four exceptional, generous champions was the recognition
of an exploit without
precedent that has never been repeated since.
Ultimately, this was the role of Zatopek, and is that of all those who, through happenstance,
a step ahead of the rest of humanity: to mark the road that must be run, bearing
the fatigue and moral
responsibility thrust upon them.
From the moral standpoint, Emil Zatopek was exemplary throughout his life. As a young
soldier he fought for
his country’s freedom and had his first experiences as an athlete in the army.
To make the most of the limited time available, he used to run the snow-covered streets
at night, wearing
army boots designed for the trenches and military marches. He used a pocket lamp
to light his way, fearless
of the traps along the way, the snow covered holes. He fell often, scraping his hands
and knees, but he never
stopped, never gave up. The training had to be done regardless of the pitfalls that
the snow might hide on his
Thus it was that in London, in 1948, an Olympic champion in the 10,000 metres ran
under thirty minutes: his
time was 29:59.6.
Six years later, on 1 June 1954, in Brussels, a certain Zatopek, who was reaching
the end of his career was
also the first man under 29 minutes in the 10,000: 28:54.2, setting on the way a
new record for the six miles
In all, he set 18 world records, won four Olympic gold medals and three European
But it is not these statistics that demonstrate the value of Zatopek, but rather
his ability to innovate. He was
the first to make training fashionable, because he understood that the resources
of the human body and
willpower are immense. Maybe it was the tough live he lived as an adolescent, or
the deprivation of the war
years, that led him to understand that the road to peace, to reach at last true peace,
meant riding a very rough
road, making men and women suffer on their way to the finish line.
Zatopek invented his own form of interval training. He knew that his finishing kick
was not strong enough to
beat his adversaries and doubted that running a fast but regular pace would be sufficient
to rid him of the
other competitors, so he practised changing his pace.
He would run up to 20 kilometres in training, but in 400 metre stretches, alternating
fast and slow runs. It was
almost like a game, but one where there was no time to stop and enjoy the surrounding
used to do his training on a dirt track, so as to be sure of the distance he was
running. And more to the point,
he used to train in his famous army boots, saying that this way to run a race in
lighter running shoes would
be like child’s play.
He used to enjoy himself and gave pleasure to millions of fans, who saw in him the
man capable of defying
all the old credos. The sages, from their vain heights, forecast every sort of ill
befalling him: it was just not
human to run so much and so fast, they believed that it would bring on a heart tumour.
In response, the then thirty-one years old Zatopek prepared for his third Olympics,
the Olympic Marathon in
Melbourne in 1956. He prepared for it using weight training, again long before this
became common practice.
But those were hard times in the cold war years and the only weight that Zatopek
could find was his wife:
Dana Zatopkova would climb up on his back and off Zatopek would run at great speed,
the embodiment of
the legend of the centaur.
But even centaurs overdo it sometimes: Zatopek suffered a hernia and had to stop
training for a while, before
starting again, against the doctors’ advice and in Melbourne, despite the pain, he
still managed a sixth place.
This was the story of his sporting career, but it is inseparable from that of Zatopek
the army officer, the
defender of a just and free social system.
Zatopek put all of his enormous prestige at the service of this ideal, but in the
spring of 1968, the Soviet tanks
wiped away the hope of the Czechs and the Olympic gold of Zatopek.
But on a day when the world of sport, and those who remember the past, honour his
no-one should forget that Zatopek’s race only ended when the line of true freedom