You may have noticed we had a Jubilee here recently, something to do with the royal family. Well, there’s another 60th anniversary this week, of a far more remarkable individual, a man whose name resonates across the century of both organised athletics and the Olympic Games – Emil Zátopek, who began his charge towards an unrepeatable golden treble in Helsinki, by winning the Olympic 10,000 metres on July 20, 1952. During the following two weeks, the Czech Locomotive, as he had become known across Europe would also win the 5000 metres and the marathon, a distance he had never previously attempted.

Zátopek’s Olympic career had begun here in London four years earlier in 1948. Only fifth in the European Championships 5000 metres two years before, Zátopek lapped all but two of his opponents in the 10,000 metres in London, to take his first Olympic gold. Had he begun his sprint earlier – he was 30 metres behind with a lap to go, and only lost by a vest-width – he would have won the 5000 metres too.

For close to a decade, Zátopek dominated distance running, and captivated crowds as much for his ungainly running style and habit of talking to his rivals mid-race as for his excellence. But it was his commitment to fair-play and justice in an area of the world where it was in short supply that makes him even more of a hero.

It emerged after Helsinki that a colleague had been dropped from the Czechoslovak Olympic team because of his father’s anti-communist activities. Though an army man, thus a member of the power-elite, Zátopek refused to go unless the colleague was reinstated. Záta’s golden treble meant there were no repercussions. That would not be the case during the ‘Prague Spring’ a decade and a half later.

When, just prior to the Mexico Olympics, the Soviet tanks rolled into the Czech capital in August 1968, to suppress the liberal reforms of the Dubček government, Colonel Zátopek was outraged. He went onto the street, to berate the Soviet soldiers, giving them a history lesson about the ‘Olympic Truce’ which would reign in Ancient Greece during the Games.

Three days later, Záta was stripped of his rank, sacked from the Czech Army, and expelled from Prague, to work as a labourer in a uranium mine; at the age of 45. His rehabilitation only began when German chancellor Willi Brandt put the Czech puppet government on the spot by inviting Zátopek to be a guest of honour at the Munich Olympics 1972. Even then, Zátopek was only allowed to return to Prague as a street cleaner. The citizens however would do his work for him.

When I finally met him, in 1995, five years before his death, I was not disappointed. His health had been broken by his forced labour, but not his spirit. He bore no malice, and was hugely entertaining, as everyone who met him would testify.

In this age of sham celebrity, there are still some proper heroes, and we shall see many in the coming weeks at London 2012. But none is likely to rival the example of Záta, in either sporting achievement or ethical solidarity..

Sport has never been more dignified than by the sacrifice of one of its greatest practitioners; a real hero, on and off the track – Emil Zátopek.

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9 Responses to MAN, AND SUPERMAN

  1. david cocksedge says:

    When Emil won the Olympic 5,000m title at Helsinki on 25 July 1952, his wife Dana Zatopkova also secured a gold medal in the women’s Javelin event. And get this: they were both born on the same day – 19 September, 1922!
    What are the chances of a married couple being born on the same day, and both winning Olympic gold medals on the same day? Do I hear 5 million to one?
    Note: Dana also won a Javelin silver medal (aged 37) at the 1960 Rome Olympics after hubby Emil had retired.
    Here’s a clipping from Wikipedia:
    The couple were well known for their public banter. Once, when Emil attempted to take some credit for his wife’s Olympic victory at her press conference, claiming that it was his victory in the 5 km run that had ‘inspired’ her, she tartly responded, “Really? Okay, go inspire some other girl and see if she throws a javelin fifty meters!!”

  2. Marc Bloom says:

    Congrats on all the great work you continue to do. I’ve cut my writing back a lot in recent years and am no longer on the track circuit, for many reasons, including making time for high school coaching, which I love, and to babysit my grand-kids, which I love even more. So I’ll keep up with London from afar (personally, I think it’s going to be a very poor Olympics for US T&F… 20 medals?).

    I was privileged to first meet Zatopek in ’79 when we were in the early years of The Runner and George H. engineered bringing Zatopek to NY as a guest of the Marathon. I picked him up at the airport with a writer I’d assigned to do a piece on him. From that moment on, for his entire stay, the man was absolutely enchanting. When he came up to our offices, he would break into song, serenading anyone, treating secretaries with the same respect and indeed love as any exec. Everyone kept saying, “This is the guy who won the Olympic distance triple?” I don’t think I’d ever met anyone so humble and gracious–and let’s not forget the courage he showed in the face the communist regime. God bless him.

    Enjoy the Games, hope you’re well…
    Marc Bloom

  3. pat says:

    thanks, Marc
    that’s a great story, and is reminiscent of those anecdotes from others on meetings with Emil

    Kenth Andersson (RIP) once told me he was with Zata in Prague and they phoned Franjo Mihalic (who had won Olympic marathon silver in 1956) in Belgrade; when Emil got on the phone he serenaded Franjo with a Serbian song (in Serbian, in case, anyone doesn’t get it – just one of the many languages that Emil was/seemed fluent in)

    as Ron Clarke (to whom Emil gave one of his Olympic golds, as appreciation for Ron’s great running) says, ‘there was never anyone like Emil, and I’ll say it a thousand times, to anyone who will listen’.

    I’m still plugging away on the margins, Marc; and I’ll always remember The Runner as the best, ie properly written athletics magazine, ever
    a reminder that track writing doesn’t have to rely on stats and revamping others’ work

    best, Pat

  4. craig sharp says:

    As a young schoolboy, I was taken by my Polish step-father to Wembley on that rainy Saturday when Emil Zatopek went into the final lap of the 5000m
    over 30m behind Gaston Reif (some say 40m – and some say 50m – I can’t actually remember, but I know it seemd an awful long way!), and steadily closed the gap. I think that Reif thought that the increasing cheering was for himself – but shouts to him from the inner trackside made him realise that Zatopek was closing, and he seemed to speed up a bit – to win by just over a metre. My step-father, Henryk, has been a middle distane runner in Poland before the war (and fought all through it) – and had a tremendous admiration for Zatopek – and for Wimbledon tennis player Jaroslav Drobny.
    Seeing Reif and Zatopek run that day inspired my own very modest running career with Glasgow’s Victoria Park AAC (who won the English senior Cross-country Championship in the early 1950′s) – and gave me a life-long interest in Track and Field (as it did to thousands of my generation). Yours in Sport, Craig

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  6. Mark Misch says:

    I was blessed with the opportunity to share a meal with Emil and Dana in their humble home in Prague in 1998. What great people, he was a living legend to his countrymen because he was so much more then a good athlete. He was the average man who gave up everything to stand for what he believed in. And how about him giving one of his Olympic gold medals to Ron Clarke from Australia? Simply awesome.

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