Amazing Sports Stories 2: Zatopek

(He) seemed on the verge of strangulation: his hatchet face was crimson; his tongue lolled about. Sportwriter, Red Smith, on Zatopek’s running style.

An extraordinary athlete

By Roger Childs

Zatopek 5000

The 5000m/10,000m double has been achieved a few times in Olympic history and most recently by Mo Farah at the 2012 London Games.

However the Czech legend Emil Zatopek, (nicknamed The Locomotive), almost did it twice. In the 1948 London Olympics, he had won the 10,000, but was trailing by 50 metres at the start of the final lap in the 5,000. In an amazing last 400m he closed to within 1.5m of the winner, but had to settle for silver.

Four years later he would make no mistake and took the two middle distance titles.  But that was not the end of it!

Four medals for the Zatopeks

At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Mr and Mrs Zatopek won medals on the same day: Dana Zatopek won the women’s javelin and Emil the 5,000m. He had won the 10,000 a few days before and a well earned rest was now on the cards.

However, there was a rumour going round that The Locomotive was thinking about the marathon, even though he had never run one. When questioned by the press he spilled the beans: At present the score in the Zatopek (marital) contest is 2-1. This is too close – I must try for the marathon.

The World record holder, Britain’s Jim Peters, was the favourite and led the 66 strong field at a fast pace out of the stadium. However, at the half way mark, as they turned for home, Zatopek and the Swede, Gustav Jannson, were in the lead. Then at 25km the Czech went ahead and steadily increased his advantage. When he entered the stadium there was pandemonium.

Zatopek marathon

The knowledgeable spectators realised they were about to witness the most stupendous triple ever in Olympic middle distance running. Standing and applauding – 70,000 people cheering as one – “Zat-o-pek!”- in rhythm to his footsteps – they watched as around the stadium he went. David Martin and Roger Gynn “The Olympic Marathon”

His time of 2.23.03.2 was a world record for an out-and-back course.

One of the greats

Emil Zatopek is one of the greatest middle distance runners of all time. From 1948 t o 1954 he won 38 consecutive 10,000m races. However his greatest achievement was to win the marathon on top of the middle distance double in the 1952 Olympics. This is a feat that will never be repeated.

In 1968, the Zatopeks were living in the Czech capital and they actively supported the Dubcek Prague Spring which eased many of the communist restrictions. However, after the Russian tanks rolled in to restore Cold War order, the family suffered. Emil lost his colonel’s rank in the army and eventually ended up doing manual labour.

When the Communist regime was eventually overthrown in 1989, the new government issued a public apology to the legendary athlete.

Throughout his life, Emil Zatopek remained a modest and humble man, however he retained his sense of humour and was always very quotable. On criticisms about his style, he remarked  I’m not talented enough to run and smile at the same time.