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
Zatopek leads on the home stretch of the 1952 5000m (credit: CORR/AFP/Getty Images)

His running was never easy on the eye. His head rocked, his arms ‘slashed’ with elbows moving at right angles to his legs, and his face was etched through with agony. So clear was Emil Zátopek’s  struggle that the legendary sports columnist Red Smith once wrote that he ran “like a man with a noose around his neck”.

Zátopek himself would  later reflect that he “was not talented enough to run and smile at the same time”, though everybody recognised the statement for what it was – the polite joke of a modest genius whose every contorted breath helped push him to places others dared not go.

At the moment of his greatest triumph, though, he was as relaxed as the world had ever seen him. For the last five miles of the Olympic marathon in Helsinki on June 27, 1952, Zátopek exchanged greetings with spectators and joked with the police lining the route.

 “I just kept on running, and when I entered the stadium, 80,000 people were screaming ‘Zátopek! Zátopek! Zátopek!’ and I won my third gold medal,” he remembered with customary matter-of-factness.

The cheers of ‘Zát-o-pek’ accompanied his every stride as he moved towards the finish line and the completion of the greatest ever distance running performance at an Olympic Games.

Such was the margin of victory that by the time the man in second – Reinaldo Gorno of Argentina – crossed the line, the party had already begun. Autographs had been signed, hands shaken, and Zátopek was on a lap of honour on the shoulders of the Jamaican 4x400m relay team.

A legend amongst runners

On that early Sunday evening, the Helsinki Olympic stadium had witnessed something utterly extraordinary that was, and remains, unique. Having already captured both 5000m and 10,000m gold, becoming the first man in history to claim such a double, Zátopek had gone one better: the almost unthinkable treble.

That this was also his first ever marathon tells something of his greatness, but this most sublime of moments was not the product of freakish gifts; it came from countless agonies endured in training and an indomitable spirit.

A champion is born

Zátopek was born four years after the end of the Great War, in Koprivnice, a grim, industrial town in the north-east of Czechoslovakia. In common with the vast majority of his contemporaries, he switched from the classroom to the factory floor at the age of 16 and found himself faced with a mundane, production-line existence until fate played its hand.

 To keep the workforce motivated, each large workplace was given a sports coach and despite his initial protestations of not being ‘fit to run’, Zátopek was put into a mile race. He finished second. It was a position he took an immediate dislike to, and an irresistible force had been unleashed.

Great expectations

By July 20, 1952, that force was preparing for a week that would rewrite the record books. As Zátopek readied himself to defend the Olympic 10,000m title he had first won in London four years earlier, the weight of expectation was huge. In the course of that first Olympic triumph, he had lapped all but two of the field, and 45 seconds had separated him from the silver medallist Alain Mimoun.

In the run-up to the Helsinki Games, he had also enjoyed two winning streaks, broken by a solitary defeat – the first of 20 successive races, the second of 75. Such was the dominance of the defending champion over the distance that he was going to the start line with a record of one defeat in his last 96 outings.

Substance over style

Watching footage of the race begins to unravel the mystery of Zátopek’s pre-eminence. His style was undoubtedly not a thing of grace, as he was happy to admit: “I shall learn to have a better style once they start judging races according to their beauty,” he said when questioned on his form.

Locked within its metronomic movements however, lay his strength. Put bluntly, Zátopek just kept going through pain and fatigue, convinced that training and determination would allow him to survive longer than his competition. Not for nothing was he nicknamed the Czech Locomotive, as he puffed and shunted his way onwards, until nobody could keep up.

That was certainly the story of the 10,000m. Mimoun, Algerian-born but running for France, made a brave attempt to stay in touch before Zátopek drifted away from him with no discernible burst of acceleration, no tactical surge or sudden kick, just the conscious setting of a pace sufficiently brutal to kill the hopes of all but the man setting it.

Four years earlier, he had won his gold with an early knockout, as the field wilted in his wake. In Helsinki, he did it the harder way: Mimoun hung in until the later laps, before the cumulative effect of the beating finally saw him broken, trailing home 17 seconds behind Zátopek, whose mark of 29:17 – a time only he had ever bettered – shattered his own Olympic record. One title had been retained but an extraordinary hunger still burned. The Locomotive was far from finished.

Raw racing determination

As the stylistic flaws and the agonies etched across his face alluded to, Zátopek’s unbeatable engine wasn’t god-given but pieced together the hard way. It started years earlier, as the young Emil began to explore the various routes towards improvement.

He ran in heavy army boots and noticed, with an almost childlike innocence, the improvement he felt when taking part in subsequent runs, clad back in plimsolls or spikes. An idea, relating to the use of resistance training, began to form, and from there it was gradually refined.

An interval trailblazer

In place of long runs in heavy boots came a groundbreaking toolbox for speed and endurance. Zátopek trained using numerous short runs, interspersed with rest periods too brief to allow him to recover fully. Just as the boots had made training runs more difficult and therefore future races easier, so this new method of forcing his body to cope under stress brought results.

His chest burned and his legs protested, but surviving the training, he was discovering, impacted profoundly on the racing. Through a combination of logic and instinct, Emil Zátopek was inventing interval training, a methodology that would become standard for athletes across almost all disciplines.

Established coaches sneered at what they perceived as naivety, but Zátopek retained the courage of his convictions. As well as making his body stronger, he believed, thesessions were toughening him up mentally. “It is better to train under bad conditions, for the difference is then a tremendous relief in a race,” he explained. “It’s raining? That doesn’t matter. That’s beside the point. It’s simply that I have to.”

On the next page: Discover how Zatopek revolutionised training and how he bravely stepped up to his marathon debut on the Olympic stage.

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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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