At precisely 3:30pm Central European Time today, July 27, a group of runners will set off around Stromovka, the country park on the northern edge of Prague 7, to follow in the metaphorical footsteps of, while paying homage to their hero – Emil Zátopek. Because 64 years ago, at that same time on this same day, Zátopek set out from the Olympic stadium in Helsinki, to run his first marathon. As you all know, he won his debut in an Olympic record time; just as he had set Olympic records in winning the 10,000 metres and 5000 metres earlier, thus completing his golden week.
And that is indeed the title – Zátopek’s Golden Week – of the eight-day celebration in memory of one of the greatest of Olympic champions that has been conducted for close to a decade now in the Czech Republic. The brainchild of Vlastimil Šroubek, secretary of Plzeň Marathon Club, Zátopek’s three Olympic golds in Helsinki are celebrated with a series of races, run in the same order, on the same date and time of day as he ran them in 1952 – the 10,000 metres on July 20 at 17.45, the 5000 metres on July 24 at 17.50, and the marathon on July 27 at 15.30. Zátopek’s Golden Week races were inaugurated in 2008 in Plzeň, the home base of the organisers, but in tandem with the London Olympics the races were moved to Prague in 2012, with the track events in the stadium of Slavia Prague, and the culminating Marathon in Stromovka.
While I was researching my book, QUICKSILVER, The Mercurial Emil Zátopek*, Šroubek wrote to me, to say, ‘The idea to organize this series first occurred to me in autumn 2007. Emil Zátopek is and always has been my idol, because he could manage something what nobody else could ever do. The main goal is to remind the young generation that Emil Zátopek won gold on precisely those days and at those times; and to remind that we had the best long-distance runner of all-time on this planet, who had a strong will, tremendous endurance, to win in just one week (eight days), three Olympic gold medals, and every time an Olympic record, which no one will ever do anymore.
‘This success was also enhanced by the victory of Mrs. Dana Zátopková, which was also a new Olympic record, immediately after the victory of Emil Zátopek in running the 5,000m. Husband and wife Zátopek thus became the most successful married couple of Olympic Games. This series is also organized thanks to Mrs Dana Zátopková. I strongly believe that the series will continue in the coming years and will grow, with the hope that one day maybe there will appear a ‘new Emil Zátopek’.
Unfortunately, the chances of that happening anytime soon are not high. Zátopek emerged from a society with no tradition whatsoever of long distance running. And when he retired, the situation more or less returned to normal. Of course, the Czech records for his events have improved in the 50 odd years since he retired, although the track record for the rarely run 25,000 metres is still his. But mulling over his races and records one evening, I wondered how they compared with the current bests in the Czech Republic and Slovakia (separate countries since 1992). The sorry story I uncovered was that in his classic distances, 5000 and 10,000 metres, the fastest men in 2015 were, respectively, eighteen seconds and one minute sixteen seconds slower than the Zátopek of 1954!
* QUICKSILVER, The Mercurial Emil Zátopek is available from: