It was a tiny gesture, but it spoke volumes. Two years ago, an already frail and forgetful Emil Zatopek was introduced to the wife of a visitor to the Prague Marathon, of which Zatopek was patron. Prompted by his still vibrant wife, Dana – herself an Olympic gold medallist – Zatopek rose unsteadily from his chair on the dais in the Old Town Square, and with the ghost of a smile on his weathered features, took the lady’s hand as if to shake it, then planted a gentle kiss on it. The recipient blushed with delight at the old world courtesy, and Zatopek, who died last week aged 78 had made another fan.
There was no shortage of them. From the tens of thousands in stadiums around the world in the 1940s and 50s, who had chanted ‘Zat-O-Pek, Zat-O-Pek,’ as he tortured himself and his rivals around the track; to those rivals who recognised no malice in his chatting to them during races; to later champions who would queue to get his autograph; to those who only read the record books, yet marvelled at such a feat as winning the Olympic 5000m, 10,000m and marathon (on his debut) in Helsinki 1952. And finally, to all those who felt that sport was never more dignified than by a practitioner who suffered internal exile for publicly denouncing the invasion of his country in 1968. And all of it was done with such panache.
There is something about distance runners that other athletes – sprinters, jumpers, throwers – just don’t have. They are treated as if they are slightly crazy. Perhaps it has something to do with all those lonely training hours, in conditions ranging from torrid heat to freezing cold; thinking, cajoling, talking to themselves. If you are inclined to think that the average distance runner has a screw loose, then Zatopek had a whole toolbox clattering around. Would that there had been more like him.
Zatopek always said that Paavo Nurmi was the greatest of all distance runners, and certainly the Flying Finn’s nine Olympic golds, plus a couple of silvers are without parallel in distance running history. But Nurmi was a notoriously hermetic character, while Zatopek was ebullience personified. He managed to connect with athletics fans in a fashion that has never been emulated. Apart from your rivals, the most difficult people to convince are your successors. To Ron Clarke, whose own 19 world records in the 1960s made him the direct descendant of Nurmi and Zatopek, the latter was little short of godlike.
The story of ‘Zata,’ as Clarke calls him, giving the Australian one of his gold medals as an appreciation of Clarke’s contribution to distance running is well known. But Clarke needed no convincing of Zatopek’s example to others. As a youngster, Clarke had trained in Melbourne with Les Perry, an Australian rival of Zatopek’s, who enthused constantly about the Czech. Clarke recalls, “I met Emil in Tokyo (Oympic Games) 1964, and he was really everything that Les had mentioned – effervescent, enthusiastic, full of good advice. I loved him, he was a fantastic man.
“Zatopek raced people for the race’s sake, for the competition’s sake. He’d lead in order to get the race moving. He’d give advice to Schade (Herbert, an Olympic rival) in German, he’d take the pace for him. He wasn’t trying not to win, but he was trying to win against the best. And he never made excuses if he got beaten. I’ve never met anybody like Emil Zatopek, and I’ll say it a thousand times. Zata was someone who was absolutely and completely special in his influence. He was the biggest driving force and influence that athletics has ever seen”.
Earlier this year, Clarke met Alain Mimoun, the French-Algerian who had finally beaten Zatopek after years of trying, to win the Olympic marathon in Melbourne 1956. Clarke says “Mimoun told me, when he finished the marathon, and Emil finished fifth or sixth, he raced up to Emil and said, ‘My friend, I won, I won’. And he said his greatest moment in sport was when Emil stood to attention and saluted him. Not breaking the tape, not the crowd acclaiming him, but Emil Zatopek acclaiming him. And that the way that Zatopek affected everyone who knew him”.
Mimoun himself said last week, “This makes me very sad. It was my destiny that I should meet a gentleman like him. I have lost a brother, not a rival”. Clarke and Mimoun are not alone in recognising that Zatopek was one of those rare people whose legend was not diminished in the meeting of them. Knowing him, talking with him, listening to his reminiscences was a life-enhancing experience. He was a genuine revolutionary, a man who altered perceptions of his sport, and of the training and dedication necessary to achieve great things. And his political self-sacrifice was an example and a spur to his compatriots, and to everybody who cares about freedom. With his death, a giant has passed on, but the sound of his footfalls, and the resonance of his example will echo down the generations.
(this appreciation was first published in the Sunday Times on November 11, 2000)