The Legendary Runner Emil Zátopek and the Secret of his Success: Beer

Emil Zatopek wins gold at the 1952 Helsinki marathon.
Emil Zatopek wins gold at the 1952 Helsinki marathon.

I recently ran in a 5,000 meter race, the first time I had competed in any official competition. It was for charity, so all I wanted to do was finish. I ran about 5k on my weekend runs, so I was confident I could complete the race. There were others who ran the 5k after just running the 10k race, which blew my mind.

Today, world-class athletes will rarely compete in multiple long-distance runs as the strategy and mindset differ from distance to distance, in addition to the general punishment on the body. However, not only did legendary runner, Emil Zátopek win the 5,000-meter race and the 10,000-meter race in Helsinki in 1952, he triumphed in the 42-kilometer marathon. The legend from Czechoslovakia won the three longest of the long-distance Olympic races and Emil Zátopekset the world record in each competition, all within one week. And his time record-setting time in the marathon of 2 hours, 23 minutes and 2 seconds was accomplished in the very first marathon he had ever run.

As discus thrower, Olga Connolly (nee Fitkotova), related in her autobiography, “The Rings of Destiny”, Emil Zátopek was the most sought-after star in the 1956 Games in Melbourne, where Connolly won gold. “Not only every athlete wanted to shake his hand, but every coach wanted to learn from Zátopek, every reporter wanted to interview him and every photographer wanted an ‘unusual’ or ‘intimate’ picture. At first the crowds of invaders searched for him in the dining room, later they sought his living quarters. Soon he found people walking freely in and out; eventually he developed the reflex of leaping into a broom closet each time he heard unfamiliar steps in the corridor. Zátopek complained that perhaps no other machinery was more effective in destroying the chances of a champion than excessive publicity.”

The Connolly's and the Zatopek's
The Connolly’s and the Zatopek’s

As it turns out, Zátopek did not medal at the Melbourne Games.

While the media wanted to know the secrets to Zátopek’s success, he revealed them to his friend, Connolly. “Before we settled to dinner, Emil ceremoniously unwrapped two bottles of Pilsner Urquell, the best Czechoslovakian beer, and divided the contents among my glass, his and Dana’s (his wife).”

“‘Emil, this is quite a celebration,’ I said. ‘You can’t have much beer left.’ I knew how jealously he protected the small case of beer he carried all the way from Prague. He sighed, ‘Well, it goes fast. Everybody is after me for a glassful, so I’ll soon have to manage without the ‘elixir.’ Zátopek was accustomed to drinking a glass of beer a day and claimed it helped to replenish body fluids lost in his daily twenty miles of running.”

“‘Medicinal beer drinking’ was one of the few topics on which Emil enjoyed anyone agreeing with him. In most other instances he preferred being opposed – always ready to engage in polemics, he was a master of aggravating arguments. Behind Zátopek’s receding forehead lay extraordinary mental faculties. He could recall minute facts from conversations he had held years before, and in several weeks abroad he could master the basics of any language. Years later, if he met his foreign friends again, he astonished them with his handling of Finnish or Urdu.”

It’s worth watching the above video to get to the last line of the narrator: “Here’s one Czech that will always be honored.”