Emil Zátopek ( ) (September
19, 1922 – November 22, 2000) was a Czech athlete probably best known for
winning three gold medals in long-distance events at the 1952 Summer Olympics in
He won gold in the 5 km
and 10 km
runs, but his final medal
came when he decided at the last minute to compete in the first
of his life. He was
nicknamed the "Czech Locomotive" for his multiple golds.
Zátopek was the first athlete to break the 29-minute barrier in the
10 km run (in 1954). Three years earlier, in 1951, he had
broken the hour for running 20 km. He is widely considered to
be one of the greatest runners of the 20th century and was also
known for his brutally tough training methods.
Zátopek was born in Kopřivnice, Czechoslovakia on September 19, 1922, as the sixth child of a
modest family. When Zátopek was 16, he began working in a
Bata shoe factory in Zlín.
Zátopek says that "One day, the factory sports coach, who was very
strict, pointed at four boys, including me, and ordered us to run
in a race. I protested that I was weak and not fit to run, but the
coach sent me for a physical examination, and the doctor said that
I was perfectly well. So I had to run, and when I got started, I
felt I wanted to win. But I only came in second. That was the way
it started." Zátopek finished second out of the field of 100. After
that point, he began to take a serious interest in running.
A mere four years later, in 1944, Emil broke the Czech records for
2,000, 3,000, and 5,000 meters. He was selected for the Czech
national team for the 1946 European Championships. He finished
fifth in the 5K, breaking his own Czech record of 14:50.2, running
first entered the international athletics field at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, winning
the 10 km (his second race at that distance) and finishing
second behind Gaston Reiff from
Belgium in the 5 km.
The following year Zátopek broke the 10 km world record
twice, and went on to better his own record three times over the
next four seasons. He also set records in the 5 km (1954),
20 km (twice in 1951), one-hour run
(twice in 1951), 25 km (1952 and 1955), and 30 km (1952).
He won the 5 km and 10 km at the 1950 European
Championships and the 10 km at the next European
At the 1952 Summer Olympics
Helsinki Zátopek won gold in the 5 km run, 10 km run, and
the marathon. He also broke the existing Olympic record in each of
the three events. His victory in the 5 km came after a
ferocious last lap in 57.5 seconds, during which he went from
fourth place to first while Christopher Chataway
, now second after
being overtaken by Zátopek, tripped on the curb and fell. His final
medal came when he decided at the last minute to compete in the
for the first time in his
life, and won. His strategy for the marathon was simple: he raced
alongside Jim Peters
British world-record holder. After a punishing first fifteen
kilometers in which Peters knew he had overtaxed himself, Zátopek
asked the Englishman what he thought of the race thus far. The
astonished Peters told the Czech that the pace was "too slow," in
an attempt to slip up Zátopek, at which point Zátopek simply
accelerated. Peters never finished; Zátopek ran an Olympic record
Zátopek attempted to defend his marathon gold medal in 1956;
however, he suffered a groin injury while training and was
hospitalized for six weeks. He resumed training the day after
leaving the hospital and never quite regained his form, finishing
sixth to his old rival and friend Alain
. He retired from competition in 1957.
Zátopek's running style was distinctive and very much at odds with
what was considered to be an efficient style at the time. His head
would often roll, face contorted with effort, while his torso swung
from side to side. He often wheezed and panted audibly while
running, which earned him the nicknames of "Emil the Terrible" or
"the Czech Locomotive". When asked about his tortured facial
expressions, Zátopek is said to have replied that "It isn't
gymnastics or ice-skating, you know." In addition he would train in
any weather, including snow, and would often do so while wearing
heavy work boots as opposed to special running shoes. He was always
willing to give advice to other runners. One example he often gave
was to always be relaxed and to help ensure that while running,
gently touch the tip of your thumb with the tip of your index or
middle finger. Just making that slight contact would ensure that
arms and shoulders remained relaxed.
A hero in his native country, Zátopek was an influential figure in
the Communist Party. However, he supported the party's democratic
wing, and after the Prague Spring
was removed from all important positions and forced to work in a
mine as punishment. On the 9th of
March 1990, Zátopek was rehabilitated by Václav Havel
.Zátopek died in
Prague, after a long illness, in 2000 at the age of
He was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal
posthumously in December 2000.
His wife Dana Zátopková
(born the same day as her husband) was an outstanding athlete in
her own right in the javelin throw
She won the gold medal in the javelin in the 1952 Summer Olympics
- only a few
moments after Emil´s victory in the 5 km run - and the silver
medal in the 1960 Summer
. An example of the playful relationship between
husband and wife came when Emil attempted to take some credit for
his wife's Olympic victory at her press conference, claiming that
it was his victory in the 5 km run that had "inspired" her.
Dana's indignant response was, "Really? Okay, go inspire some other
girl and see if she
throws a javelin fifty meters!!"
- "Great is the victory, but the friendship is all the
- "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
- "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
- Emil Zátopek on interval
training, "Everyone said, 'Emil, you are a fool!' But when I
first won the European Championship, they said: 'Emil, you are a
- When asked about his tortured expression during races, Emil
Zátopek said, "It is not gymnastics or ice skating, you know."
In 2008 a new Belgian magazine for runners called Zatopek
was born. The
authorization to use the name was granted by his widow Dana Zátopková
. The first issues of
the magazine publish a long interview with her.
- "All of them oddballs: Angus Calder sees the
diversity of life", The National Post
- Runner's World quote webpage