His sessions were brutal. Fifty laps of a track, interspersed with half a lap of jog ‘recovery’ – the equivalent of a half marathon divided into vicious segments – became a favourite, if such a word is really appropriate.
He also forced himself to touch the tips of his thumbs with the tips of his index fingers to stop the determination turning to clenched fists and unhelpful tension. It was all entirely logical, and all utterly different.
These revolutionary training methods turned the factory worker into a running machine – one that broke the 10,000m world record five times in the run-up to the Helsinki Games. When he moved away from Mimoun, it was nothing more than the Frenchman had expected.
Facing Zátopek, with his willingness to consume pain and exhaustion, as if some form of fuel, the race was often over before the starting pistol had been fired.
Strength on and off the track
Understanding the strength of Zátopek the man helps us to understand the strength of Zátopek the runner. And that strength had amazingly almost stopped him from ever getting to the start line in Helsinki.
Just a few days before the Games began, the Communist authorities had decreed that Stanislav Jungwirth, a relay runner on the Czechoslovakian team, would not be allowed to compete because of his father’s status as a political prisoner. When Zátopek heard this, he followed his humanitarian instincts and announced that should Jungwirth not go to the Games then neither would he.
After a nerve-wrenching standoff, the authorities backed down. Zátopek was victorious, but he would later pay heavily for his courage. There was expediency in the decision to allow him to compete in 1952, as his presence all but guaranteed glory for the state. But his card had been marked, and once he had served his purpose, revenge would be sought.
That was still a long way down the track though. Back in Helsinki, just two days after his 10,000m triumph, Zátopek was back on the oval variety for the 5000m heats, steaming through to set up a chance to do ‘the double’ two nights later. It represented a chance of historic significance – something nobody, not even the legendary ‘Flying Finns’ Paavo Nurmi and Ville Ritola, who denied each other both distances in the 1920s, had ever achieved.
It would also offer further insight into what made him such a great athlete – an explanation of how brightly the competitive fires burned. Unlike the 10,000m, Zátopek was not the favourite; and as the field reached the top bend for the last time, five remained – Zátopek, Mimoun, the British pair of Chris Chataway and Gordon Pirie, and the favourite Herbert Schade of Germany.
Mimoun kicked hard, and all but Zátopek responded, leaving him facing a wall of vests 150m from the finish. Then Zátopek dug deep, headed out to lane two, and trusted his training. His legs drove on and the field crumbled. Chataway stumbled and fell, and again only Mimoun remained to chase, but the line arrived with him still five metres back.
His time of 14:06.6 was another Olympic record although it was, in a race that was more tactical than many had anticipated, slower than Gunder Hagg’s world record, which would not fall into Zátopek’s ownership for a further two years.
While Zátopek was overtaking Mimoun, in the centre of the oval the women’s javelin final was coming to an end. It also saw Czechoslovakia claim gold. More pertinently, it did so in the shape of Dana Ingrova-Zátopková.
In all likelihood, Emil Zátopek’s reaction to his wife’s triumph was a joke, but the possibility that he was serious when he announced he was chasing one final challenge, is more beguiling: “At present, the score of the contest in the Zátopek family is 2-1. This result is too close. To restore some prestige I will try to improve on it in the marathon.”
A marathon debut
Having done the long-distance double, breaking both Olympic records in the process, Zátopek believed he could achieve the treble, a record that has never been matched, by winning a race he had never before attempted. Nothing made clearer his belief that anything, if he pushed hard enough, might be possible. He had just two full days to recover from his three track races over five days, and acquaint himself with a new event and new tactics. Plus more fearsome opposition than he had faced thus far.
Jim Peters was one of the great British hopes going into the 1952 Games, having followed a path of preparation seemingly as gruelling as Zátopek’s. To modern eyes, his racing schedule borders on suicidal, having earned his place at the Games by winning the Polytechnic Marathon just six weeks earlier, setting a world record of 2:20:42.
Despite Zátopek’s steely determination, his grim adherence to the most ferocious of training schedules and the tortured image he presented on the track, the broader picture is of a generous, humane individual – as evidenced during the Jungwirth episode and then further demonstrated after 15K of the marathon.
Happy to acknowledge his inexperience, he casually asked the world record holder if the pace, which was ferocious, was too fast. Not knowing if he was joking, and fearing the onset of mind games, Peters replied that it was in fact too slow. Zátopek checked: “You sure?” Peters stuck to his tactics, replying, “Yes.” It was a fateful decision.
Grateful for the advice, Zátopek accelerated and Peters, after launching an ill-fated bid to stay in touch, would later collapse out of the race and fail to finish. The Locomotive, on the other hand, steamed on into history. Officially, his winning margin was two and a half minutes, the Olympic record being shorn of six whole minutes. But it was a moment that transcended the clock. One day, further down the line, someone would beat the time – but nobody would ever come close to beating the achievement. Three distances, three golds and three Olympic records stood as testimony to the unmatched, the unmatchable, greatness of Emil Zátopek.
On the next page: The shocking cost of Zatopek's high integrity and we reveal one of his terrifyingly tough interval sessions - don't try this at home!