Emil Zatopek

21-02-2001

And now it's time for the latest edition of Czechs in History, in which Nick Carey takes a look at one of the greatest athletes of all time, a miner's son who became the very embodiment of the Olympic ideal: Emil Zatopek.

Emil Zatopek is a legend in the Czech Republic. He is also a legend in sporting history. No man before him, or since, has ever managed to better his achievements. At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, he won gold medals for the 5,000 metres, the 10,000 metres and the marathon, all within the space of eight days, which one commentator has compared to scaling mounts Everest, McKinley and Kilimanjaro all in one summer. For many people around the world, he embodied the Olympic ideal, and he's still revered by the Czech people today. Despite his international fame, however, he was forced to work in the uranium mines and as a labourer after he publicly condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and it was not until the early 1980s that he was rehabilitated.

Emil Zatopek was born in the Northern Moravian village of Koprivnice on September 19th, 1922, the son of a local miner. He began running at a late age, around the age of seventeen or eighteen, and his career was interrupted by the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia by the Nazis and the outbreak of the Second World War.

The end of the Second World War found Emil Zatopek serving as a junior officer in the Czechoslovak army, where he started training again as a runner. He began to make a name for himself with a gold medal in the 10,000 metres at the 1948 Olympic Games, but it was not until the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952 that the world sat up and took notice. Now aged thirty, and supposedly beyond his physical prime, Emil Zatopek got off to a grand start at the games with a gold in the 5,000 metres:

But Emil Zatopek didn't stop there. Within the space of just eight days, he went on to win gold in the 10,000 metres and the marathon. Over the course of these few days, he became a household name the world over: the man who conquered three of the toughest events at the Olympics. For many people, like the President of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, Zatopek embodied the Olympic ideal:
Emil Zatopek's achievement in winning the marathon after the 5,000 and 10,000 metres was unprecedented, and was a tribute to his determination to win. As he himself said later on, he was close to collapse by the end of the race:
No-one has since managed to match Zatopek's record at the Helsinki Olympics. According to sports journalist, Petr Soucek, it can now probably never be repeated:
Emil Zatopek always attributed his success to his severe training schedule. A typical day would include running forty four hundred-metre sprints, with a break of a few minutes between each one, and he ran at every spare moment. During races, he would use the sprinting technique he had developed to leave his competitors far behind. He was also noted for his strange running style, with commentators noting that his arms flailed and his head moved around constantly while competing. This, says, Petr Soucek, was due to his late start and lack of official training:
After the Helsinki Games, Emil Zatopek returned home with his wife Dana, who had also won a gold medal for Czechoslovakia in the javelin event. The golden couple were received with open arms in Czechoslovakia, and Emil was assured a good career in the army.

But the glory of his achievement had not gone to his head. According to one of Emil's friends and fellow sportsmen, Karel Pilny, the head of the Czech Athletics Association, people were wrong in thinking that Emil Zatopek was just a great athlete:

Emil Zatopek was given a good post at the Defence Ministry, and life went smoothly, with frequent trips abroad to sporting events first as an athlete, later as a VIP. This all changed, however, in 1968. Emil Zatopek came out first in favour of the reforms of the Prague Spring, and then condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact armies in August 1968.

As a result, Emil Zatopek was stripped of his rank of colonel, was fired from the ministry, and spent the next three years working in a uranium mine. Karel Pilny says Emil Zatopek felt he had to speak out in 1968:

Emil Zatopek worked as a labourer until he was rehabilitated in 1982. From then on until the end of the Communist regime, he worked on sports documentaries, but had to keep a low profile. After the Velvet Revolution, much of his old glory returned, and when he passed away on November 22nd 2000 he received a state funeral, with thousands of people lining the streets of Prague to pay their last respects.

Most Czechs over a certain age can talk at great length about Emil Zatopek. But what about the younger generation? Nowadays, says sports journalist Petr Soucek, only the best Czech athletes want to follow in Zatopek's footsteps:

For many years after Emil Zatopek had fallen from grace with the Communist authorities, no-one saw him, in the media or in person, but everyone knew his name. Czech Athletics Association chairman Karel Pilny says the name of Emil Zatopek, particularly during the years when he disappeared, took on wider significance:
For many people around the world Emil Zatopek is a legend, because of his sporting achievements, his humanity and his sacrifice. Speaking at his funeral in December, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch paid this tribute to the legend of Emil Zatopek:

21-02-2001