Dana Zátopková, the 1952 Olympic javelin champion died yesterday (Friday), aged 97, at home in Prague; thus ends one of the most famous families in Olympic history. Though an Olympic and twice European champion (and silver in the Rome Olympics 1960), as well as a world record holder, during most of her competitive life, Dana was seen as the second most famous member of the Zátopek family, Emil, the four-time Olympic gold winner (among many other accolades) holding centre stage.
But Dana’s resilience and longevity and sense of humour came to the fore when Emil retired in 1958, and she had the competitive stage to herself. Born on the same day/year as Emil in Moravia, following her Olympic silver in 1960, their home province mounted a public celebration and banquet in her honour. After the ceremony, she said that nothing had given her greater pleasure in her career than to hear the provincial governor greet her with the words, ‘Please welcome the Olympic champion and recent silver medallist, Dana Zátopková, and her husband’ (my italics). After competing for over a decade in the long shadow of her illustrious husband, she had finally relegated him to being a footnote.
That same sense of humour was much in evidence when I interviewed her at her home in Prague several times during 2015/6 for my book on Emil.* Recalling an anecdote about how a team colleague, Jindra Roudny (European steeple champion 1950) had got into a lot of trouble following the death of Stalin a couple of years later, she couldn’t stop laughing at the memory. Like Emil, a member of the Czech army, by then part of the Soviet bloc, Roudny had written home to his wife, ‘Is it true the Bluebeard in the East has popped his clogs?’ Though never naming Stalin, Roudny was dismissed from the army, and never ran for the national team again.
Dana and Emil laid their reputations on the line in 1968, when they signed the 2000 Words Manifesto, an implicit public criticism of the moribund Czechoslovak and (by extension) Soviet governments, they were officially ostracised. They were permitted to attend the Mexico Olympics later that year, in the apparent hope that they would defect and save the authorities a lot of trouble. Indeed, Scandinavian countries and the UK made overtures of welcome to them. But, as Dana told me, ‘We loved our home country; we didn’t want to leave’. Emil had it worse, he was expelled from Prague, and made to work as a manual labourer for a half dozen years. But Dana’s allies rallied and prevented her being sacked from her official coaching post. And when Emil renounced his opposition to the regime, he did so without telling Dana; he was right, she criticised him publicly for having doing so.
When I first met Dana and Emil in the mid-1990s, while he was content to garden and do odd-jobs around the home, she was still cycling off to the stadium every morning to coach young athletes; and was never prouder than when Czech throwers Jan Železný and Barborá Špotáková succeeded her as Olympic champions and world record holders.
Born Dana Ingrová in Fryštát, Moravia-Silesia on September 19, 1922, she was originally interested in handball, and good enough to captain the provincial team to many titles, even after she was javelin-throwing at Olympic level (London 1948). She admitted to a reputation as a tomboy, so her family was surprised when she turned up at home with Emil in tow; her father even more so, since he was Emil’s commanding officer in the Czech army. He advised Dana not to marry – ‘He’s a runner, he’ll run away’. But they married shortly after the London Olympics; and created some sort of family record when they won gold medals at the next Games in Helsinki 1952, within an hour of each other, he in the 5000 metres, she in the javelin. They celebrated with a kiss, captured on camera as probably the most celebrated embrace in Olympic history. Emil, incidentally, perhaps exhausted by a frankly insane training regime which occasionally included 100 x 400m in one day, died in 2000.
It’s a shame that the current closure of Czechia (Czech Republic), due to coronavirus will prevent many of us from attending Dana’s funeral.
* QUICKSILVER, The Mercurial Emil Zátopek https://www.globerunner.org/books/