Running into Zatopek, the amazing Czech Olympian

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By Paul Oppenheim

Running Columnist

Most runners probably haven't heard of Emil Zatopek, the legendary Czech Olympic runner of the 1940s and 50s. On a recent Czech Republic tour my group stayed in the small town of Roznova near the Austrian border. The town features an outdoor museum of homes and farm buildings from the 1600s and 1700s, similar to pioneer villages here in the US. Our guide also pointed out that Emil Zatopek is buried there beside other Czech notables. And by chance, a road race was being held that day with the finish line only a few meters away. An old lady was placing fresh flowers on the grave, and I suddenly realized it was Zatopek's widow, herself a 1952 Olympic champion (the javelin).

That 23 kilometer race started at his birthplace and finished at his gravesite. The top three were Kenyans (of course), followed by the rest of the small field. Awards were presented by Mrs. Zatopek.

Zatopek set 18 different world records, but his most incredible performance was at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics where he won the 5,000 meters in record time, won the 10,000 meters (another record), and at the last minute entered the marathon, a race he had never run before. After the first 15 kilometers, he caught up to pre-race favorite Jim Peters of England, and asked if the pace was correct. Peters said it was too slow, either joking or trying to psyche out his opponent. Zatopek simply increased his pace and easily won with yet another Olympic record. Peters cramped, and had to drop out. No one has ever duplicated Zatopek's amazing feat.

He was noted for his ungainly running style and tortured expression. Sportswriter Red Smith wrote that Zatopek ran "like a man with a noose around his neck." He wheezed and panted, and was known as the "Czech Locomotive." He joked that running wasn't like figure skating with style points.

Zatopek was a shoe factory apprentice during World War II when he began to run, discovering his natural talent. After the war he joined the Czech army and developed his own training techniques such as interval training, now an essential training element. His first international race was in 1946 in Berlin. With no way to get there in war-torn Europe, he rode his bicycle — over 200 miles from Prague. He won.

Zatopek trained in heavy boots, and even ran in his bathtub, a primitive treadmill, pacing on his wet clothes, combining training and laundry. Our tour guide also pointed out old Czech army barracks with connecting corridors, where Zatopek ran longer distances indoors during inclement weather.

He spoke six languages and was a gregarious, friendly competitor, but his openness and resistance to the post-war Czech Communist regime eventually got him in trouble. After the violent 1969 crackdown of a more liberal period ("Prague Spring"), government officials stripped him of his position despite world fame and rank as an army colonel. Zatopek was relegated to mine work, sweeping streets, and emptying garbage. But people who recognized him insisted on helping with his onerous chores, and embarrassed officials restored his position. In 1990 after the fall of Communism he received an official apology. He died in 2000, a Czech national hero.

I was grateful for this accidental link to a legend of our sport.

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Done from Oak Park  

Posted: October 2nd, 2012 9:53 AM

Great story on an amazing athlete. What a great opportunity to be able to have been on this trip and be part of such an event.

Bungameng from Prague  

Posted: October 2nd, 2012 1:49 AM

I would only add that the 1969 events did not happen by themselves, but were a direct outcome of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by USSR, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria and Hungary. Those who deposed Z?topek were thugs who were put in position by the occupation forces.

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