Emil Zatopek was larger than life. The winner of the Olympic gold medal in 1948 ( London), and the silver in the 5,000m (he missed the gold by less than a yard with his insane last lap, running down a 50-plus meter lead by Gaston Reiff).
In 1952, Emil Zatopek won the gold in the 10,000 meters, came back, and won a tough 5,000m, where he did not regain the lead until 180 meters to go. After golds in the 5,000m and 10,000m, Zatopek also won the marathon, on his first try, taking the lead after 25k and never looking back. Some interesting trivia, in all four Olympic track medals, Alain Mimoun of France finished right behind him.
In 1956, six weeks after hernia surgery (he had done 300-meter intervals holding his wife, Daniella, on his back), he finished sixth place. Waiting in the line for Emil was his dear friend and competitor, Alain Mimoun.
In 1991, when Emil spent a few days at Stanford, he traveled to Carmel with Joe Mangan and me. I taped six hours of tapes from that day.
He told us about Vladimir Kuts, who he liked, and he told us about Alain Mimoun, who waited at the finish for him in the 1956 marathon, telling his Czech friend that he had become a father just before the race (I have heard that this story is not true, well, in 1991, to Emil Zatopek, it was true).
What is not clearly known is how terribly the Soviets treated Emil after 1968. Zatopek, while a Communist, was a nationalist. He supported the Spring Revolt and the Dubjek government, who stood up to the Soviets. A student revolt, led by the late Vaclav Havel, then, a college professor, was also part of the story. Zatopek was thrown in jail, and treated so severely by the Soviet captors, that he damaged his back and legs, never to run again.
As he told us this story, I was sitting in the back seat, recording the discussions and Joe Mangan was driving. It was hard not to tear up. Here was his country’s greatest athlete, actually the greatest distance runner in Olympic history, and he was given menial jobs for nearly twenty years after the 1968 revolt.
I found this video of Emil’s Olympic successes and thought of him once again. On the day of his marathon victory, his lovely wife, Daniella, won the javelin gold medal. She became a coach after that, and I believe, has still had one of the best throws with the wooden javelin.
In Edmonton, in 2001, I witnessed how highly Czech athletes held in esteem the Zatopeks. Emil had been dead for two years, but as Roman Sebrle saw Daniella, at a press conference in Edmonton, they crossed the room to hug her. She smiled and chatted with Roman and another Czech decathlete.
I was fascinated with Emil’s view of the world. He was truly a world citizen. When I asked him about the 1968 revolt and his feelings on Marxism, he told me that ” I am a Communist, yes, but I am a nationalist first.” He paid dearly for the love of his country.
Zatopek did train hard. 20-40 times 400 meters, several times per week. He trained all year round, and perhaps 100 miles a week. He would try and hold his breath for long times, to strengthen his lungs. His neighbors thought he was drinking, as he would hold his breath so long that he was having trouble walking. He pounded a four hundred or so meter snow trail around his officer’s billet (living quarters), one cold winter.
In this age of scientific training, it is great to hear and see how far the human heart can push a man or woman to excel. One of the great things about our sport are the surprise athletes who come up through the ranks!
Who will be the next Zatopek?