On the anniversary of Emil Zátopek’s final consecration as the finest distance runner in the world, if not in history – breaking the 5000 metres world record that had long eluded him – it is worth reminding readers that the Czech was as much of a character off the track as he was on it. His ebullient front-running, while taking time out to chat to his competitors and rivals during races is already legendary; as are his numerous world records, topped by being the only person in history to win all three distance titles in one Olympic Games, Helsinki 1952. Given that the marathon has become such a speciality since then, that is a feat highly unlikely to be repeated. However the off-track character was just as colourful.
The record books state baldly that on this day, May 30, 1954, Emil Zátopek broke Gunder Hägg’s 5000 metres world record, with 13min 57.2sec, thus becoming only the second man in history to go under 14 minutes. But the events prior and posterior to this feat only embellish the achievement. For a start, Zátopek was originally barred from entering France due, as one of his later fans said, to, “a big mouth that occasionally got him into trouble”.
On his first visit to France earlier that year, 1954, he had become the first Czechoslovak to win the prestigious l’Humanité cross country race; following which he had gone out on the town with fellow-competitors and race organisers. When he got back home to Prague, and was asked about Paris (since by this time, travel west was restricted by the communist government), he regaled a crowded bar with details of the sights, including, as he puts it in his co-autobiography with wife Dana (also an Olympic champion), an, “evening promenade on the famous rue Pigalle”. He could equally have written ‘infamous’ since the street was the centre of the red-light district in Clichy/Montmartre.
Apparently a journalist present in the bar wrote an account of Zátopek’s comments, reproduced in French newspapers, with the result that when Emil arrived in Brussels on his way to Paris, he was told that his ‘criticism’ meant that he would not be allowed to enter France. ‘Conclusive proof,’ Emil wrote, ‘that he who has it in his legs doesn’t necessarily have it in his head’. Some 11th hour negotiations resulted in a visa being produced in the middle of the night prior to the event in Colombes; so after a sleepless night and an early morning flight to Paris, the race was on. With preparation like that, even to his own surprise, he broke Hägg’s record by one second. Since he was returning home through Brussels, the Belgian athletics federation organised an impromptu 10,000 metres two days later, in the hope of benefiting from his excellent form. Despite incessant rain and a saturated track in the interim, and (another) solo run after the first three kilometres, he succeeded in setting his fifth (and final) 10,000 metres world record, of 28.54.2.
But it was the 5000 metres world record that pleased him most, principally because Dana had been chiding him about his failure to break it for some considerable time; and had even promised to bow down to him publicly should he break the record. But when she was one of the group that greeted his plane back in Prague, she asked timidly if she might not kow-tow back at home. He insisted that she keep her promise to do it publicly. As he recorded in their autobiography, ‘And so Dana really bowed down in front of me, all the way down to the ground. And because there were so many photographers around, it was in all the newspapers the following day.
‘And I have saved the pictures, just in case anyone tells me that I never achieved anything through running’.
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