Chasing Emil Zatopek

Posted on 19th April 2016 by Richard Askwith
Emil Zatopek is a forgotten Olympic champion and arguably one of the greatest long-distance runners who ever lived. So why do we all not know who he is?

Richard Askwith is the author of the new biography, Today We Die A Little: the Rise and Fall of Emil Zátopek, Olympic legend. Here he talks about the little known yet incredible successful runner, Emil Zatopek, and why we all need to know more about him.


“Zátopek,” I’d say. “Emil Zátopek.”

“Emil who?” they’d repeat.

Of all the unexpected things I learnt when researching the life of the greatest of all distance runners, this one surprised me most. Each time I tried to explain to a friend or colleague why I was off yet again to the Czech Republic, I’d get the same baffled response.

I planned to dig beneath the surface of the best-known story in sport – but most people didn’t even know the story.

Even the hard core of running enthusiasts who recognised Zátopek’s name – some of whom, like me, idolised him – knew much less about him than we thought.

This collective ignorance was strange. In the 1950s, Emil was one of the most celebrated people on the planet: a worshipped megastar on the same scale as, later, Muhammad Ali. The subsequent evaporation of his fame is part of his remarkable tale.

Born in poverty in Czechoslovakia in 1922, the seventh child of a Moravian carpenter, he began running at eighteen, reluctantly, while enrolled at the sweatshop-cum-industrial-school of the Baťa shoe factory in Zlín. He had a gift, though not a spectacular one. He began to train – and found in training an escape from the oppressive disciplines of Nazi occupation.

After the liberation, he joined the army. Opportunities to train and race were plentiful. He developed a regime of unprecedented intensity and inventiveness, including a system of interval training that would eventually be imitated by elite distance runners all over the world.

At the London Olympics in 1948 – the “Austerity Games” – he won gold at 10,000m and silver at 5,000m. For the former he lapped so many people that the timekeepers became hopelessly confused. For the latter, a lapse of concentration meant he missed out on gold by a stride – but his heroic last-lap sprint caused an even greater sensation than his earlier victory.

Four years later, in Helsinki, he won an unprecedented, never-to-be-repeated clean sweep of the distance-running events: 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon. The marathon was his first attempt at the distance – an afterthought prompted, he claimed, by his wife’s triumph in the javelin three days earlier: I decided that the ratio of medals in the Zátopek household was insufficiently weighted in my favour.”

His style was famously ungainly: sportswriters joked that he ran “like a man who has just been stabbed in the heart”, or “as if he might be having a fit”. It made him wonderfully dramatic to watch. You could feel his pain – and thrill all the more at the unbreakable will that enabled him to run through it.

He was eccentric, too. At the height of his fame, his crazy experiments were legendary: everyone knew that he trained in Army boots, or by bounding through deep snow or sand, or running barefoot on the spot for hours in a bathtub full of laundry, or holding his breath until he passed out. Some even said he trained with his wife on his back.

What people really loved him for, though, was his warm, witty personality. He would chat away to rivals before, after and even during races. If he didn’t speak their language, he would learn it, memorising words from dictionaries; he became fluent in eight and dabbled in more. His American rival, Fred Wilt, called him “the most humble, friendly and popular athlete in modern times”; Alain Mimoun, the Frenchman who usually won silver behind him, called him “a saint” and “a brother”.

Emil had a knack of capturing in words the romance of sport. “It was a liberation of spirit to be there,” he famously said of the London Games. “After those dark days of the war… the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out.”

By then, he had married the team-mate he had wooed in London: the javelin-thrower Dana Ingrová. They had been born on the same day: 19 September 1922. “We could get married on the same day too,” suggested Emil. Eventually, they did. Later, in Helsinki, they won Olympic gold on the same day.

In London, Emil slipped away at dawn one morning from the Uxbridge barracks where the male athletes were based, avoiding the Communist “sharp eyes” who kept him under surveillance, and talked his way across the capital to the girl’s school in Northwood where the Czechoslovak women were staying. He lured Dana from her dormitory by whistling their favourite song; then, sitting by the swimming-pool, tried to show her his latest medal. In their excitement, they dropped it in the pool.

This careless approach to the visible symbols of success was one of Emil’s most endearing qualities. Eighteen years later, he famously gave one of his gold medals away, to the Australian, Ron Clarke – the greatest runner never to win gold of his own.

At the heart of it all was a profound, instinctive generosity. Emil shared his training secrets with anyone who asked – and in mid-race would offer words of encouragement to rivals, or take the lead when it was not in his interests to do so. The Helsinki Olympics were supposed to be the Games of the Cold War, with two separate athletes’ villages embodying the world’s bitter division. Emil did more than anyone to turn them, by sheer charm, into the Games of Reconciliation.

He gave tips and hospitality to star-struck young Western athletes who came to see him in the Communist bloc’s Olympic village. He gave up his bed to a visiting Australian, and interrupted his preparations to seek out and console an English runner who was ill. He gave his socks to another English rival, and his vest to an Australian one.

When he entered the Olympic stadium at the end of the marathon to claim his third gold, 70,000 spectators chanted his name in spine-tingling unison. “At that moment,” said one of them, future International Olympic Committee chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch, “I understood what the Olympic spirit means.”

The turning-point in Emil’s life came in 1968 – the year of the Prague Spring. After two decades of rigid Stalinist dictatorship, a new First Secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubček, became the figurehead of a political thaw which he described as “socialism with a human face”. Emil was an enthusiastic supporter, and signed the liberals’ manifesto, The Two Thousand Words. That August, a huge Soviet-led army invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the reform movement. Emil was at the forefront of the protests, rallying crowds and speaking to foreign reporters in their own languages as he denounced the Soviets as the “gangsters of the world” and called for them to be banned from the Olympics.

The impact was electrifying – like seeing the barricades manned by David Beckham. Hard-core Communists, who had previously hailed Emil as a shining example of “socialist man”, were furious at what they saw as a betrayal. When Dubček was overthrown and the reform movement crushed, they had their revenge. Emil was expelled from the Army and the Communist Party. His name was erased from text-books, and his duties as a public speaker and national figurehead abruptly ceased. Prevented from finding work in Prague, he was eventually employed as part of a small, itinerant drilling team that prospected for water and minerals in remote parts of rural Czechoslovakia. Campaigning by friends in the West may have saved him from a worse fate; but from then on he slipped from their view.

The labourers on the drilling team not only worked together but lived together, in a caravan. They slept in the clothes they worked in. Every few weeks they were allowed a couple of days at home.

Emil could cope with the hardship but hated the exile and disgrace, and the separation from his beloved wife. He drank heavily; his marriage suffered.

Eventually, nearly five years later, after a series of very public capitulations to the Communists for which the dissident movement never forgave him, he was allowed back, quietly, to Prague.

But he was no longer the man he used to be. He lived out his remaining days in relative obscurity, his glory rarely spoken of in his own country – and, as a result, increasingly forgotten in the West. His official rehabilitation in 1990, after the Velvet Revolution, made little difference to his tarnished reputation in what was now the Czech Republic; nor did the continuing love of those who actually knew him. As his younger brother put it: “He travelled around the world and was welcomed everywhere. But in our country they scorned him.”

 He died in November 2000. There was a brief burst of retrospective acclaim. But those who remembered his glory days had grown old by then – and today, if they survive at all, are older still. He has been strangely forgotten since.

My efforts to rescue Emil’s story from oblivion have been partly a race against time. Many of my sources have been in their nineties; several, sadly, have died since I spoke to them. Sometimes, I was too late. I wish I had started sooner, and am glad I did not leave it any later.

I don’t know if my book does Emil Zátopek justice. I hope it does.

I am more certain than ever, though, that his story deserves telling.


Today We Die a Little: the Rise and Fall of Emil Zátopek, Olympic legend, by Richard Askwith, is published on 21 April.


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