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Emil Zatopek
23 November 2000
Zatopek enters the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki on his way to winning the marathon at the 1952 Games, when he took gold in three events
Emil Zatopek's golden legacy


The great Czech distance runner, who has died at 78, set a Games record unlikely to be equalled

JOURNALISTS always queue for “freebies”, knick-knacks given out at sports events. Usually, the longer the queue, the better the freebie, and the longest that I can recall was at the 1978 European athletics championships in Prague.

When joining the line, I did not know what the gift was. It was only after five minutes that I realised that reporters were waiting for their notebooks to be signed by Emil Zatopek. It was as if the Continent’s sportswriters were taking communion with their idol. Only a few sportsmen have achieved such status that journalists set aside professional embarrassment to request autographs. Muhammad Ali and Pelé are among the handful of others on the same plinth.

Zatopek’s greatest feat was to become the only athlete to win the 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres and marathon at the same Olympics. This is something that is unlikely to be duplicated because in 1952, when he completed the triple in Helsinki, there were no heats for the 10,000 metres. Modern runners, such as Haile Gebrselassie, the 1996 and 2000 Olympic 10,000 metres champion, concentrate on one distance. Competition is also much fiercer nowadays.

However, Zatopek utterly dominated his own era. During the 1952 marathon, he turned to Jim Peters, who had set a world best six weeks earlier, and asked whether the pace was fast enough. Zatopek then increased his speed and the demoralised Briton dropped back.

It was not just performances that defined Zatopek’s greatness. He acted as an example for generations of runners, showing them how to spend their lives training for victory. Word of his dedication was handed on by athletes like Red Guards disseminating the thoughts of Mao Tse-tung. When his wife, Dana, the 1952 Olympic javelin champion, asked him to do the washing, Zatopek took the clothes upstairs, placed them in soapy water, stepped into the bath and then churned them about while continuing his running.

While on sentry duty with the Czech Army, he used to practise holding his breath. Once he collapsed, just as a superior officer arrived. Before the 1952 Games he had ten successive days in which he ran 400 metres 60 times, jogging 400 metres between each fast lap.

Unlike 21st-century runners, he did not have the advantage of modern equipment and the help of doctors, scientists and coaches. He once said: “My running was very simple; it was out of myself. Perhaps, I was sometimes like a mad dog.”

David Bedford, a successor as the 10,000 metres world record-holder, who first met Zatopek when the Briton was only 14, said yesterday: “He was probably the greatest distance runner ever. As a boy I was convinced of that and, looking back over the years, I am sure that remains the case. He invented the hard-work ethic.”

In races, Zatopek was a front-runner, like Bedford and the Australian, Ron Clarke. He once said: “It is not enough to win the race. One must contribute to it.”

He was revered by his rivals. He recalled of the 1952 Games: “When I went to the start, the others stood back and asked where Zatopek would like to stand. And when the gun went off they all fell into place like schoolboys in a line. Someone did a drawing of me after the Games as if I were a railway engine and the others were carriages — dropping them off as if in a goods yard.”

His support for the liberal Dubcek regime in 1968 led to him being oppressed by the strict communist regime. As Lamine Diack, the President of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, said yesterday: “This is a sad day not only for sports people . . . but also for the common people who recognised in Zatopek an honest defender of the fundamental principles of dignity and freedom of the individual.”

Zatopek’s humanity and capacity for friendship were best shown when he entertained Clarke, like Zatopek a multi world record-holder but, unlike him, a man who never won an Olympic title. Before the Australian left Prague, Zatopek gave him a present, saying: “Don’t open this until you have left. It’s for you because you deserve it.” Later, Clarke opened the box. Inside was Zatopek’s Olympic 10,000 metres gold medal.

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