Emil Zatopek: The Greatest Champion?

Eight days, three distances, three Olympic records - read the jaw-dropping story of the Czech champion

by Mike Collins

emil zatopek
Friend and rival Alain Mimoun congratulates Zatopek (credit: CORR/AFP/Getty Images)

Doubling up

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.

Relationship rivalry

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!

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Discuss this article

Sorry, is that one hundred times around a 400m track at less than 72 seconds per lap? Within four hours? In training? Is this a joke or a mistake? Flippin' 'eck!

 Is there anyone in Britain that could do that as a one-off today? A bottle of pop says the isn't!

Posted: 17/05/2012 at 04:00

Fantastic distance runner.

Posted: 17/05/2012 at 05:41

Great article love these kind. More please.
Posted: 17/05/2012 at 06:42

Those interested in another story which he was a part of should check out the book "The Ghost Runner: The Tradgedy of the Man they couldnt stop" by Bill Jones.....


Dr Robert - I think they mean 72 seconds per 400m lap, followed by a 200m jog, one hundred times

Posted: 17/05/2012 at 09:51

Read 'Zatopek, Zatopek, Zatopek' by Bob Phillips from 2002.

Posted: 17/05/2012 at 20:40

Lasse Viren came closest in  1976 to emulating Zatopek 1952 treble, when he won Gold in 5000m. 10,000m then finished a brave 5th in the Marathon.

Posted: 17/05/2012 at 20:42

Zatopek, Zatopek, Zatopek is an reall good read.  Great runner and a great man by all accounts.

Posted: 17/05/2012 at 21:05

Was it Steve Jones who was leading the Olympic Marathon and Zatopec was in the lead group, having a chat? (!) He said that this was his first marathon race and were they going fast enough. I think it was Jones who said, that if he felt he could go faster, then he should. Zatopek said he was bored, and upped the pace to win it.

(Names and events may be incorrect, but the story's a good one)

Posted: 18/05/2012 at 00:59

It was Jim Peters mate. Steve Jones a bit later mid 1980s

Posted: 18/05/2012 at 05:56

100 x  400 metre intervals is insane.

Putting aside the extraordinary level of fitness needed, the mental strength required to complete such a session (especially as he must have done it on his own) is "off the scale". Can you imagine completing say 20 of those intervals, feeling the pain and then realising you've got another 80 to go !

Got to be the "toughest" runner of all time and always will be one of the all-time greats.

I agree with Birkmyre. A really great article and these Olympic related stories have been far and away the best thing in the magazine in recent months. I thought the ones on Kelly Holmes and John Carlos/Tommie Smith were also particularly good.

Posted: 18/05/2012 at 18:44

DavidJones39: Good to hear from you again. Agreed these are what should be in a running magazine. 'The Guardian' has a series of  some classic Olympic Moments currently. 

Got Jim Peters book 'In the long run' in cupboard. Haven't read it in ages.

 I also remember ( oh no here we go again) there was a classic interview with Emil Zatopek in the August 1985edition of  'Running' Magazine.

Posted: 18/05/2012 at 21:20

I used to do 10 x 400m and thought I'd trained hard on track with that session...

Posted: 18/05/2012 at 21:21

Just read that Zatopeks standard training session was 20 x 200m; 40 x 400m; 20 x 200m. This was pretty much all the type of training he did. All like this, all on the track. Everyday. 

So, now that we have defined the meaning of boredom....

Posted: 19/05/2012 at 07:01

Glad this article is getting some decent comments. It certainly deserves some .

Posted: 19/05/2012 at 10:43

That's interesting Dreamtwister/RicF, I'd heard the "100 x 400m intervals" story before and it's one of those stories that's so incredible  I really hoped it was true !

Even if the reality was a little less extreme, that is still an incredible training regime (It'd be a brave coach who suggested something similar today...). It certainly worked for him, but he must have been incredibly injury resilient.

Hi Birkmyre - always good to read your posts. 

Posted: 20/05/2012 at 12:40

I believe he also did a lot of training in heavy army boots, and chopped down trees to build up his strength.

Posted: 20/05/2012 at 15:20

And did half squats with his wife on his shoulders. I assume she wasn't 18 stone but then again I doubt it would have made much difference.

Posted: 20/05/2012 at 17:14

His wife was the Olympic javelin champion - so she must have been fairly "well built" !

Posted: 20/05/2012 at 21:41

David: That is certainly cross training with a difference eh.

Posted: 21/05/2012 at 05:54

The greatest distance runner ever ?

Posted: 23/05/2012 at 06:12

Interesting question - Zatopek or Gebrsellasie ?

On balance, I'd go for Gebrsellaise too, mainly due to the sheer number of years he's kept on producing world class performances.

Posted: 23/05/2012 at 18:36

David/Dream Where would you place him in Top 3 of all time distance runners then ?




Posted: 24/05/2012 at 06:45

Just going on those I've seen, my top 3 would be:

1. Gebrsellasie

2. Bikele

3. Viren

However, I think what Zatopek did was so extraordinary for the time that, although his PB's don't look that special today, I'd still put him at no.2 on my list.

I'd still pick Haile as my number 1 though. PB's ranging from 3'31" at 1500 m (indoors) to 2' 03' 59" at the Marathon, plus 19 years between his first World Championship 10,000m and last Sunday's 27'39" 10k, "plus plus" all the Olympic medals, WC medals and world records.

But we'll all have different opinions and I don't profess to be an expert !




Posted: 24/05/2012 at 20:00

One of the early distance runners to catch my attention (apart from Brendan Foster )was Yifter. Yifter the shifter' as I recall David Coleman called him.

I'll need to consider the answer to my own question .

Posted: 24/05/2012 at 21:10

Okay after much thinking

1. Gebresalaise

2. Zatopek


Posted: 25/05/2012 at 22:17

Not a bad call Birkmyre and I'd definitely agree with you on numbers 1 and 2.

I'd just put Bekele above Viren, mainly because of his 5K and 10K world records, which really are almost unbelievable, and his final lap in winning 10,000m gold at the 2008 Olympics.

The other contender based on a "one off" performance is Daniel Komen. I still watch his 3,000 m world record on Youtube in awe. Whether it was "artificially aided" or not, for pure sustained speed it is quite extraordinary.

Posted: 26/05/2012 at 00:38

Guys: I just put Viren in for his Doubles Doubles on 1972 and 1976. That clinched it for me.

Dream: Zatopek was the runner of his time. He set new standards and broke through barriers. I've just admired him since getting into athletics back in the early 1980s.

Said Aouita was another with an amazing range of talent.

5000m Gold in 1984 OG and 1987 World Championships, Mile and 5000m WR Holder then bronze in 800m in 1988 !!

Posted: 26/05/2012 at 11:21

Dream : I agree with that re Bekele .


Posted: 26/05/2012 at 11:22

Birkmyre/Dream - we're all pretty much agreed that Geb, Bekele and Viren would be part of any top 4 (and I take your point that Bekele hasn't finished his career yet , by any means).

I still think Zatopek should be in the mix, even though his times look ordinary today. One test of greatness is dominance over your contemporaries and by that measure Zatopek deserves serious consideration. I'm sure that if he was around today (with modern training, rest etc) he'd be much faster than his 1950's times and probably dominant in Europe, although I don't think he'd be any match for either Geb or Bekele at their best. I guess I put him 2nd mainly because of how far ahead of his rivals he was.

Posted: 26/05/2012 at 17:46

David/Dream: Its quite amazing how the 3 of us have come to near enough the same conclusions.

I must admit I always admired Paul Tergat as an athlete and Moses Kiptanui for his Steeplechase exploits. De Castella is another from 1980s for his Marathon wins. Despite not medalling in LA84 when a hot favourite.

Posted: 26/05/2012 at 20:46

Emil Zatopek and Ron Clarke are my all time favorite runners. My affection for them is nothing short of hero worship.

 The Zatopek - Clarke Olympic medal story recounted in the article is legendary and always brings a tear to my eye. There have been better and faster runners since them, but I can't think of anyone who better embodies the human spirit than Zatopek.

I was lucky to get to see Ron Clarke run at the White City in 1968 and even luckier to meet Zatopek and get his autograph in Prague, also in 1968, shortly before the Russians arrived and changed everything.




Posted: 27/05/2012 at 17:01

Amazing stories there Tom. Just from your perspective, if we could arrange a "fantasy race" (say 10,000m) between Zatopek, Ron Clarke, Lasse Viren, Haile, Bekele and Paul Tergat - all at their peak and taking into account the eras they were racing in - what do you think the "1-2-3" would most likely be ?

Posted: 27/05/2012 at 21:42

Tom: Wow amazing that you met and got an autograpgh from the Great Man. Ron Clarke was another fantastic distance athlete.

David: Thats an interesting race...

Posted: 28/05/2012 at 06:03

I absolutely think EZ is one of the all-time greats.  As a teenager, I used to read about and idolise his training methods, even if I didn't have the resources or ability to replicate them!

 But for a year or two, I was Emil Zatopek.

Posted: 28/05/2012 at 17:53

And yes, Dr Robert, totally agree.  What a mind-warpingly astounding interval session was that!  Wish I could do it for 4 k, let alone marathon distance.
Posted: 28/05/2012 at 17:55

Found this colour footage of the Great Man.


Posted: 29/05/2012 at 05:36

Wee 'heads up' for those who haven't read this cracking article.
Posted: 04/06/2012 at 08:05


Good piece in Guardian for those of us interested.

Posted: 23/06/2012 at 09:10

"In 1968 the Australian athlete Ron Clarke came to visit. One of the world's fastest distance runners for a decade, Clarke had suffered from a string of bad luck at major championships, and in that year's Olympics in Mexico City had collapsed and very nearly died from altitude sickness. For all his lack of success Zatopek respected him as an athlete and liked him as a person, and the two spent a pleasurable day together. When he dropped Clarke off at the airport, Zatopek embraced him warmly and handed him a small parcel. "Not out of friendship but because you deserve it," he said.

Clarke kept the package in his pocket until his plane was in the air. "I wondered whether I was smuggling something out for him. I retired to the privacy of the lavatory. When I unwrapped the box, there, inscribed with my name and that day's date, was Emil's Olympic 10,000-metre gold medal. I sat on that toilet seat and wept," Clarke said."

I've read this story a hundred times and it never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
Posted: 23/06/2012 at 15:58

Tom: I've read that story lots of times and I always think of how great and humble a man Emil Zatopek was to do that.

Posted: 24/06/2012 at 07:51

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