Emil Zatopek

Legendary distance runner

8–30–16, Adil

Czechoslovakian Emil Zatopek is an Olympic legend. He was a big time distance runner.

the man

In 1946, he entered his first international race but was stuck in Prague with no way to get to Berlin. He decided to bike there — all 220 miles of it. And then he still won the race.

He upped his training after that: he would run at night with a torch and strap weights to his feet while biking. One article even says he made a faux treadmill by putting a layer of wet clothes at the bottom of his bathtub and running on them (I find this hard to believe, but hey). He ran in heavy army boots and embraced rain, ice and snow.

By 1948 he had developed a ridiculous training schedule. An average day started as five 200m sprints, 20 400m runs, then five more 200m sprints. When this was successful he pushed himself harder — he did 50 400m runs, then 60, then 70. In the buildup to one record attempt, he pushed himself to 100 400m runs a day — 50 in the morning, and another 50 in the afternoon, adding up to nearly 25 miles a day, with a couple of miles of sprints thrown in for good measure.

In the 1948 Olympics, Zatopek cruised to a victory in the 10,000m. His margin of victory was 48 seconds. Even better: he had notoriously HORRIBLE running form. The New York Herald Tribune described him “bobbing, weaving, staggering, gyrating, clutching his torso … he ran like a man with a noose around his neck. He seemed on the verge of strangulation.” The New York Times felt his action was that of “a harried soul on the rack of physical and spiritual torture”. Another journalist suggested he looked “like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt”. “Track and field is not ice skating,” Zatopek said. “It is not necessary to smile and make a wonderful impression on the judges.”

After unnecessarily indulging in a sprint finish during an earlier heat, Zatopek got the silver in the 5,000. At one point he was 100m behind the leader, but in the end was just one step and 0.2 seconds behind gold. Still an incredible comeback and performance.

Between 1949 and 1951 Zatopek competed in 69 long-distance races and won every one. But in 1951 he injured himself by skiing into a tree, and in the buildup to the 1952 Olympics he suffered from illness. But, nonetheless, he went on to easily win the 10,000m again. This time, he also followed it with a dramatic, last-turn victory in the 5,000m.

NOW my favorite part: in these 1952 Olympics, Briton Jim Peters decided to focus all his efforts on winning the marathon. Peters had been so humiliated by Zatopek in the 10,000m at the last Olympics that Peters vowed to never race that again. So, here he was at the marathon. But, on somewhat of a whim, Zatopek recently decided to run the marathon too. Keep in mind, he had NEVER run this event in his life. Halfway through the race, as they were both in the front, Zatopek asked Peters, “is this pace too fast?” Peters sarcastically told him “no, it isn’t fast enough.” But Zatopek took him at his word and sped up, eventually winning the race by minutes. When Zatopek crossed the line, looking as the Guardian reported “like a man who has had a brisk country walk”, the crowd chanted his name and he was carried around the stadium upon the shoulders of Jamaica’s victorious 4x400m relay team, having secured a long-distance treble that no one before or since has even come close to and with it an indelible place in sporting legend.

In 1968, after he vocally supported democracy, he was suddenly stripped of his high military rank, expelled from the army, and thrown out of the Communist Party, who declared that Zatopek “lacked understanding of the fundamental problems of the development of our socialist society, and the need to defend it on the basis of the principles of Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism”. He was put to work in Prague’s sanitation department, collecting rubbish, and went on to spend seven years working in a uranium mine. As usual, he saw the bright side of that experience as well. “The earth is nice not only from above, but from inside,” he said.

There’s plenty more interesting tidbits from his life that I won’t detail: married a gold-medal winning javelin thrower, gifted away one of his 10,000m gold medals to Australian Ron Clarke after he had a lot of unsuccessful runs, etc. Seems like an interesting life, but I’d never heard of him before.