Emil Zatopek: The Greatest Champion?

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.