The prototype of a long line of Czech sporting figures,
Emil Zatopek was one of the greatest distance runners ever to grace
the track. For a period of six years, 1948-54, he was supreme in the
10,000 metres, an event in which he repeatedly lowered the world
record. Time and time again his blistering pace projected him into a
sphere of athletics excellence where opponents simply could not
So complete was his supremacy that the race itself ceased, in his
great years, to be the point for him, and he had to motivate himself
by keeping the world record steadfastly before him. In the 1950
European championships, for example, he was a colossal 69 seconds
ahead of the second placed athlete at the finish. And at the same
meeting in the 5,000 metres — an event at which he also excelled
without enjoying quite the same unchallenged superiority for quite
so long — he came home 23 seconds clear of the opposition.
His most astonishing Olympic Games was in 1952 at Helsinki, where
he won the 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres and the marathon, even though
the last event was his first attempt at the distance. Over a period
of five years, 1949-54, he slashed more than half a minute off his
10,000 metre time, lowering his own world record from 29min 28.2sec
to 28min 54.2sec. His 5,000 metres world record of 1954, 13min
57.2sec, was almost 20 seconds faster than the time he had posted at
the 1948 Olympics when coming in second.
Statistics apart, Zatopek was one of the great personalities of
the track. To the casual observer, his tortured expression, red
face, lolling tongue and audible wheezings might have suggested a
man in no physical condition to be participating in running races.
Those hapless opponents toiling fruitlessly in his wake were in a
position to testify to the contrary.
He owed his remarkable results to a natural ability allied to his
relentless exposition of the principles of Fartlek —
speed-training of Swedish origin — which banished for ever the until
then hallowed long-distance running concept of the “steady pace”.
Instead of training over race-length distances, Zatopek subjected
himself to a series of punishing 400-metre sprints, “relaxing” in
between them with 250 metres at the jog. This was the secret of
those electrifying bursts of speed which he was capable of suddenly
injecting into a race, completely upsetting his opponents’
calculations and destroying their collective will.
Zatopek’s prowess on the track earned him immense prestige in
Czechoslovakia. But neither prowess nor prestige could protect him
from the agents of state repression in the wake of the Soviet
occupation of his country in 1968. In one of the more shameful
codicils to the Russian crushing of Czech reformist aspirations,
Zatopek was, as a signatory of Alexander Dubcek’s Manifesto of
2,000 Words, stripped of his army rank, his Communist Party
membership and his job.
For the next 30 years he lived in obscurity, performing
largely menial tasks, even after he had, in error, signed up to a
qualified acceptance of the post-1968 status quo. When
rehabilitation came with the collapse of the Soviet empire it found
him broken in health and no longer able to perform the ambassadorial
role on behalf of Czech sport for which he had been so manifestly
fitted in those lost years.
Zatopek and his wife Dana, had one of the great sporting
marriages. A javelin thrower, Dana Zatopkova, too, won gold at the
1952 Olympics and at the 1954 European championships. And she was to
carry on after he had retired to win gold again at the 1958 European
championships in Stockholm.
Emil Zatopek was born in 1922 in Koprivnice, in Moravia, and grew
up in Zlin, the home of Bata shoes. He himself worked at the Bata
factory whose director persuaded him to take part in a sponsored
1,500 metre race, one day in 1940. Without having trained, he came
second in a field of 100 youths and was persuaded to take the sport
seriously. With his country dominsted by Nazi Germany athletics
provided an outlet for frustrated ambition for a young man over the
next few years.
Zatopek experimented relentlessly. He trained in heavy army boots
to make his feet feel lighter on race days. He wore a gas mask to
see if it helped his breath control. (It didn’t.) When the curfew
forced him indoors he ran on the spot in a spare room. In 1944 he
broke the Czech records for 2,000, 3,000 and 5,000 metres. Selected
for the Czech team for the 1946 European champioships in Oslo, he
came fifth, bringing his Czech record of 14min 50.2sec, established
the previous year, down to 14 min 25.8sec.
By today’s standards this was a late start to an international
career, but Zatopek in his mid-twenties showed he had plenty more to
offer. The Finnish world record holder, Viljo Heino, was expected to
dominate the 10,000 metres at the 1948 Olympics in London. But after
a fierce battle lasting 15 laps Zatopek burnt the Finn off with his
repeated bursts of acceleration, going on to win from the Frenchman
Alain Mimoun by a margin of almost 48 seconds.
The very next day was his 5,000 metre heat and only two days
after that was the final. Gustav Reiff of Belgium opened a 40-metre
gap on Zatopek and appeared to have the race in the bag as they
entered the last lap. But Zatopek mounted a furious charge over the
last 400 metres and had closed to within two metres at the tape.
These London performances were the beginning of Zatopek’s reign
as the undisputed king of the distance runners. In the 1950 European
championships he avenged himself on Reiff after a pulsating battle
in which the Belgian led for four-fifths of the race, until a burst
of acceleration from the Czech broke his heart and reduced him to a
canter in which he was passed by Mimoun for second place.
Three days earlier, Zatopek had won the 10,000 metres from Mamoun
by 69 seconds. In the following year he became the first man to run
20,000 metres in under an hour, completing the distance in 59min
51.6.sec. Among Zatopek’s achievements at Helsinki in 1952, the most
memorable of his three races — and undoubtedly his severest test —
was the 5,000 metres.
The leaders of the field, which included the young Chris
Chataway, Herbert Schade of Germany and Mimoun, were closely bunched
at the bell, and Chataway launched a courageous attempt to get away
from the group down the back straight. But as they rounded the last
curve Zatopek put in an unanswerable burst; the hapless Chataway
tripped on the kerb and fell; and the other two could find no answer
to this dramatic raising of the stakes. Zatopek covered the last lap
in 58.1 secs to take the tape in one of the purest displays of sheer
competitive aggression ever seen on the track.
In the end the years and injury took their toll. From 1953 the
star of Vladimir Kuts, of Ukraine, was in the ascendant on
the international scene. And although at Berne in 1954 Zatopek
easily won the 10,000 metres in which Kuts did not participate, he
had to concede to the Ukrainian in the 5,000, in which he came third
In 1955 Zatopek set the last two of his 18 world records, for 15
miles and 25,000 metres. The following year he retired from
competition after coming sixth in the marathon at the Melbourne
Olympics, a performance doubtless affected by a previous operation
for hernia. Thereafter he worked as a coach in the Czech Army,
rising to the rank of colonel.
Until 1968 his life continued peacefully, but both he and his
wife were in the front line of opinion which supported the Prague
spring reforms of Alexander Dubcek. Both were signatories of the
Manifesto and when, in August that year, the tanks rolled
into Prague, Emil Zatopek went to Wenceslas Square to remonstrate
with their crews. Hailed as “our Olympic champion” by the crowds as
he did so, he was bound to be a conspicuous target when reprisals
Dismissed from the army, he joined that band of dissident Czechs
who found themselves part of the best-educated manual work force in
any European country. For some years he dug and shovelled for a
geological team searching for minerals in a remote part of the
country. When western journalists asked to interview him he was
always “not available”.
Finally he was given a job by the Czech sports ministry, reading
foreign sports periodicals and reporting on what coaches outside
Czechoslovakia were doing. He and his wife both retired in 1980 and
thereafter they lived quietly, he in a state of gradually
deteriorating health which had involved him in several periods in
hospital. Dana Zatopkova survives him. They had no