Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Cold War Olympics - Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. The Czech Locomotive


Emil Zátopek (September 19, 1922 – November 22, 2000) a Czech runner, was the first and only man ever to win the "triple crown" of the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races as well as the marathon in a single Olympics. He is considered to be one of the creators of interval training, a method that is still used by athletes today. His sessions such as 100 x 400m are the stuff of legend among athletics aficionados, as are the training runs in the woods in army boots or the runs with Dana on his back as part of the strengthening programme prior to Melbourne. It was Zatopek who ushered in the era of the high-volume training which led to the rewriting of the record-books in the sixties

Emil Zatopek was born on September 19, 1922, in Koprinivince, Czechoslovakia. His father was a carpenter who raised eight children. Zatopek began running at the age of 16, when he was working in the Buta shoe factory. In 1941, the shoe factory sponsored a race through the streets of the town of Zlin. Zatopek had never competed before and did not want to run in the race, but was forced to by his employer. As Richard Benyo noted in The Masters of the Marathon, "He finished second, probably motivated more by the desire to get it over with than the wish to shine in the event." Zatopek ran a few more races in the next year, but was not passionately interested in running.

However, coaches and trainers marked him as a talented young runner. In his first official race, a 3,000-meter run, he came in second only to his trainer. A newspaper reported, "A good performance by Zatopek." He read that line over and over; it was the seed of all his future ambitions in running. When the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia during World War II, Zatopek joined the army. Instead of running on roads, he ran in his army boots during his guard duty, training every day regardless of weather, and using a flashlight to run in the dark if necessary.

The Helsinki Olympics

In 1952, the Olympic Games were scheduled to be held in Helsinki, Finland. They were the subject of a great deal of speculation because athletes from the Soviet Union and its satellite countries would be participating for the first time since 1917. It was the time of the Cold War, and tension between the Communist governments and the USA was high. The countries diverted their mutual competition into the Games. At the Olympics, however, athletes from behind the Iron Curtain and those from the West coexisted peacefully, inviting each other into their quarters and competing with honor.

Zatopek was the star of the track events that year despite a doctor's warning that he shouldn't compete due to a gland infection two months before

At the previous Olympics held in London in 1948, he had won a gold medal in the 10,000-meter race and a silver medal in the 5,000.

In Helsinki, Zatopek won the 10,000 meters with ease, setting a new Olympic world record by almost 43 seconds. In the 5,000, he was trailing until the final turn, where he sprinted and won by a little less than a second, setting another Olympic record.

Zatopek's wife, Dana Zatopkova, was also an athlete. After he won his second gold, he loaned the medal to her just before she began competing in the javelin throw. She put it in her bag for good luck, and with her first throw, set a new Olympic record and won the event.

Zatopek had never won a marathon before, but buoyed by his two wins, announced that he would compete in the Olympic marathon, three days after the 5,000-meter race.

The Beast of Prague

Zatopek was not a graceful runner, and was famous for his horrifying style.

Newspapers called him "The Beast of Prague," "The Czech Express," and "The Human Locomotive," because of his distorted appearance while running. Charlie Lovett wrote in Olympic Marathon and describes him aptly, "Each step for the Czech runner looked as though it might be his last. His face was constantly contorted as if in terrible pain, his head rolled wildly, and his arms were held high, as if to clutch at his heart. Anyone who watched Zatopek run for a few steps would assume he was on the point of collapse. And, anyone who had run a marathon knew that such a style wasted valuable energy and was not likely to lead to completion of the race, much less victory. Zatopek, however, was not a runner who dealt in likelihoods."

Benyo wrote, "His style has been described as similar to a man just stabbed in the heart, his head would roll back as though his eyes were attempting to see over the top of his head, his tongue would loll out of his mouth, and an expression of pain would cross his face as though he were about to drop to the ground from a mortal wound. His arm movements were spastic, one would drop so low that it appeared as though he were trying to scratch his knee. Each step appeared to be torture." Despite his unusual style, he was known for his good humor, enthusiasm, and love of running; Benyo described him as "charming, warm, intelligent, guileless and totally unaffected by his fame as well as undaunted by his frequent turns of fortune."

Zatopek was well-known as one of the inventors of a system of training called "interval training," which is still used by athletes. In this system, a runner covers a short distance very quickly, then rests while running more slowly, then runs the distance again, rests again, runs again, and so on. This training builds speed and endurance, unlike running long distances at a steady pace, which builds only endurance. It was his interval training that made him feel he would be able to compete in the marathon; he would be the first runner ever to attempt to win the 5,000, 10,000, and marathon in a single Olympics.

The Helsinki Marathon

At the marathon, Jim Peters of Great Britain, who held the world record with a time of 2:20:42, was expected to win. He had a time about five minutes better than all his prospective competitors in Helsinki. This included the marathon virgin, Emil Zatopek.

At the start Zatopek sought out Jim Peters, looking to the favourite to help him pace the longest event. Looking for Peter's number (187) the Czech marathon debutant found the British world record holder and asked "Hello are you Peters?" Jim Peters said 'yes' and Zatopek then said "I am Emil Zatopek from Czechoslovakia, I am very pleased to see you."

From the beginning Peters set a fast pace, with the first five kilometres completed in 15 minutes 43 seconds, then the 10 kilometre mark was passed in 31 minutes 55 seconds.

At the 15km mark, Zatopek asked Peters, "Jim, the pace. Is it good enough?"

Peters replied "Pace too slow", even though he was beginning to feel the effects of his efforts so far.

Zatopek considered this reply and then said "You say too slow. Are you sure the pace is too slow?"

Peters again said 'yes', at which point Zatopek shrugged his shoulders, before making his move nearing the 20 kilometres mark.

Swede Gustaff Jansson kept pace with Zatopek as Peters fell behind. By the half way mark, Zatopek and the Swede were equal first (1.04.27) and Peters third (1.04.37).

Jansson took a slice of lemon at a feed station and Zatopek noted this. He thought that as the Swede was running well, the lemon probably would help.

When the Czech came to the next feed station Zatopek would take two lemons.

Meanwhile Peters was fading fast, and at the turn for the last half of the marathon Zatopek grabbed the lead, without taking any lemons to suck.

Jansson faded as well and by the 35 kilometre point he was over a minute behind Zatopek. Peters had collapsed exhausted after 32 kilometres, so he was no longer a threat.

In the meantime, the Argentinian Reinaldo Gorno, improved his position to second behind Zatopek at the 40 km mark. The incredible strength and ability of Emil Zatopek was about to bring him the amazing troika of gold medals at the one Olympics; 5000 metres, 10,000 metres and the marathon.

The Helsinki Olympia stadium rang once last time with the chant 'Zat-o-pek! Zat-o-pek!' as their hero ran the last lap of the marathon.

The gap between gold and silver ended up to be over two and a half minutes, with Zatopek crossing the line in 2 hours 23 minutes and 3.2 seconds.

The Jamaican 4x100 metres relay team hoisted Zatopek on their shoulders, chairing him around as the ecstatic crowd gave him a standing ovation. Then as Gorno crossed the finishing line for his silver medal Zatopek came over to the Argentinian, greeting him with a slice of orange

After his victory Zatopek said:

"I was unable to walk for a whole week after that (the marathon), so much did the race take out of me. But it was the most pleasant exhaustion I have ever known."

The Prague Spring 1968

A hero in his native country, Zátopek was an influential figure in the Communist Party and a revered public figure in Czechoslovakia. He quit running as an athlete in 1957 but remained highly influencial.

All that changed in 1968 during the Prague Spring. Under reformist Alexander Dubcek, Czechslovakia tried to liberalize communism and introduce democratic reforms. Zatopek signed the "2000 Word Manifesto" which called for a break from the Soviet Union and encouraged reform.

When the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to crush the reform movement on that fateful summer's day, Zatopek spoke out against the Soviet use of tanks to crush the democratic movement. When the reforms failed, Zatopek was a marked man. He was stripped of his Army rank, and expelled from the Communist Party. He was sent to work in a uranium mine for six years for political rehabilitation.

Between 1969 to 1982, Zatopek practically disappeared from the western world, and yet he always argued that it wasn't so bad. He learned a lot from his experience.

After his years in the uranium mine, Zatopek found a role at the Czechoslovak Physical Training Association in 1970, and later in the decade was associated with the Czech national sports institute.

During his final years Zatopek settled down with wife Dana - who won gold in the javelin at the 1952 Games - in a small town outside Prague.

Still the Olympian

Greatly loved by his competitors as well, the quality of Zatopek not just as an Olympian but as a man was shown not just by his victories in Helsinki, but also by the way he went about securing them. Finally, with one last generous act, Emil Zatopek soared further into the stratosphere of Olympic legends.

In the 1968, 10,000 metre world record holder Ron Clarke met with Zatopek after the Mexico City Olympics. On the point of leaving Prague after his visit, Clarke was walked through customs by Zatopek. Shaking hands in a final farewell, Zatopek passed a small package to the Australian, which Clarke took unopened onto his flight. Worried that he was carried some smuggled information from Zatopek (who signed the manifesto supporting the so-called "Prague Spring" of 1968), Clarke only opened his package when the flight was well outside Czechoslovakian airspace.

Inside was Zatopek's 10,000 metres gold medal from Helsinki. With this act of true sporting friendship, Emil Zatopek's words to Ron Clarke as he had got on the plane made sense to the Australian; "Because you deserved it".

The Velvet Revolution

In 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev encouraged Eastern Europe to adopt Glasnost and Perestroika, sparking off a wave of nationalism and reforms in Czechoslovakia, tje Vevet Revolution took place (Czech: sametová revoluce, Slovak: nežná revolúcia) between November 16 – December 29, 1989. Riot police ried to supress a peaceful student demonstration in Prague which turned into huge popular demonstrations. With the USSR refusing to intervene, a non-violent revolution occured in Czechoslovakia. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced that it would relinquish power and dismantle the single-party state. Barbed wire and other obstructions were removed from the border with West Germany and Austria (Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the federal parliament and Václav Havel the new democratic President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989)

The Velvet Revolution made the wheel turn a full circle. Zatopek could travel again - and enjoyed the affection heaped on him by athletics fans the world over. In 1999 he was voted as the greatest Olympic champion from the Czech Republic by a jury of experts and journalists from the country.

Zatopek's Death

In November 2000, legendary Czech athlete Emil Zatopek died after suffering with a mystery virus complicated by pneumonia and a weakened heart rate.

The four-times Olympic champion died in a Prague military hospital, aged 78.

Zatopek was hospitalised after a stroke on 30 October, 2000 and had been in a critical condition since.


"Essentially, we distinguish ourselves from the rest. If you want to win something, run the 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon."

"I was not talented enough to run and smile at the same time."

"It's at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys."

Upon winning: "But it was the finest exhaustion I've ever felt."

"His enthusiasm, his friendliness, his love of life, shone through every movement. There is not and never was a greater man than Emil Zatopek." - Ron Clarke


P said...

Several historical inaccuracies, shame that.

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