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Emil Zatopek - The Indefatigable Czech

Emil Zatopek - The Indefatigable Czech

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"Zatopek! Zatopek!"

Like the clacketyclack of the wheels of a rumbling train under a tall head of steam, the chant reverberated through Helsinki's spacious Olympic Stadium and seemed to reach into the heavens and fall like thunder on the ears of the world.

Emil Zatopek regains the lead in the 5,000-meter event at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Hensinki.
click photo to enlarge

It might well have been the theme song of the 1952 Games, the second of the great international sports festivals following the 12year hiatus caused by World War II. It was also the first in history to produce the headtohead confrontation on the athletic field of the two surviving powersthe United States and the Communist giant of the Soviet Union and its satellites.

Emil "The Indefatigable" Zatopek ran under the red colors of Czechoslovakia, a part of the Iron Curtain bloc. But politics and ideologies were forgotten, as this balding, reedthin Czech army officer churned to long-distance running feats that never before had been achieved and, according to most track-and-field authorities, probably will never be duplicated.

Zatopek swept to victory in three of the most demanding tests in sports the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 meters and the marathon, the latter a footrace covering 26 miles and 385 yards. Finland's fabulous Paavo Nurmi had won the 1,500 and 5,000 meters in 1924 and the 10,000 meters in 1920 and 1928, but to capture all three in a single meet would have defied his own comprehension.

Emil Zatopek was a scrawny man with a seemingly frail frame at 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 145 pounds. As he ran, it appeared he might collapse at any minute, falling prostrate on the track, gasping for breath.

His style was far from classic. As his pounding spikes chewed up the yards, his head bobbed from side to side, his arms flailed the air and his face became contorted, as if he were suffering the severest pain.

Red Smith, the famous columnist who covered the Helsinki Games, wrote that Zatopek ran "like a man with a noose about his neck...on the verge of strangulation...his hatchet face crimson, his tongue lolled out."

No matter. The crowd loved it. And as the inexhaustible Czech moved from event to event, his popularity grew. He became the Games' cult hero and fans by the thousands jammed the stadium to appreciate his awkward brilliance and cheer him on.

Zatopek, son of a laborer and second youngest of eight children, left home at 16 and got a job in a shoe factory. In Communist countries, clubs and factories engage heavily in sports competitions. Emil first ran for the shoe factory. He showed enough speed and dedication to be chosen for special training. He decided to concentrate on distance running.

He ran at night, wearing heavy boots and carrying a flashlight. He initiated his own routine, which confounded his coaches. He said he got the idea from the great Nurmi.

"I heard that Paavo Nurmi, in one hour, was able to run four times 400 meters in excellent time," he explained later. "I thought, What if I make six times 400 meters, more then Nurmi, and what if I run a short distance, 100 meters, at full speed and then not sit but jog, and do that over and over again."

Trainers scoffed at his regimen, but Zatopek continued it. To practice for the 10,000, he would run five times 200 meters, 20 times 400 meters and five times 200 meters. He never sat. He jogged between routines.

Soon he was the best long-distance runner in Czechoslovakia. He did what most good Communist athletes dohe joined the army. In the 1948 Olympics in London, the first in 12 years, he won the 10,000 meters going away but finished second in the 5,000, rallying from 30 yards back to lose by twotenths of a second. He skipped the marathon. In 1949, he broke Viljo Heino's world record in the 10,000 with a clocking of 29 minutes and 28 seconds.

At Helsinki in 1952, Zatopek won the 10,000 meters easily. The Finns took to him naturally. Nurmi had left in them a deep-seated devotion to long distance running. Zatopek said he worried about the 5,000 meters not only because of the stronger field, but also because the shorter race left him confused on strategy. Should he set the pace or lay back and unleash a kick at the end?

Zatopek relied on instinct and confidence in his staying powers. With 200 meters to go, he trailed Chris Chataway of Britain, Alain Mimoun of France and Herbert Schade of Germany, but with the roar of "Zatopek" ringing in his ears, he spurted to win by four meters.

He called it the most rewarding day of his career. He not only had two gold medals, but his wife, Dana, added another for the family cabinet by winning the javelin. In addition, it convinced Zatopek he should also try for the marathon, a race he had never won, and a shot at the "impossible triple slam" of distance running.

Helsinki was beside itself. The big stadium was jammed with chanting fans. Zatopek didn't disappoint. Running a strategic race, he burst into the arena amid a deafening roar, his face grimacing, head bobbing and arms flying. He set an Olympic record.

Emil Zatopek won this race, the 5,000-meter run, the 10,000 and marathon at the 1952 Olympic Games.
click photo to enlarge

Zatopek became a national hero. He was a colonel in the army. He received all the government gratuities lavished on sports heroeshome, car, the works. The honeymoon was short lived.

Emil Zatopek gets a kiss from his wife, Dana, after winning the marathon in the 1952 Summer Olympics.
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A liberal and supreme patriot, he openly criticized the USSR's stranglehold on his homeland. He argued that, to survive, Communism must give its adherents "air to breathe". He was stripped of his rank. He was reduced to menial jobs such as cleaning toilets. He and Dana lived for a while in a trailer before moving to a modest home in the country. But no one could destroy the legend of the indefatigable Czech.

This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010

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