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Zatopek, one of the track greats, dies at 78
22 November 2000
Emil Zatopek, whose ungainly style belied an extraordinary running talent, in his prime
Emil Zatopek, 1922-2000

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 survive.

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 behind Chataway.

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 began.

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 children.

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December 02, 2000