As a teenager, Emil Zátopek did not appear to be destined for greatness. The seventh of eight children, born in Kopřivnice, Czechoslovakia on September 19, 1922, Zátopek grew into a smart but ungainly boy, a scrawny body with a big head and ears. There was nothing that appeared remarkable. In fact one teacher told him that he would never amount to anything.
And yet, Emil Zátopek would become, with little argument, the greatest distance runner of the 20th century. His crowning achievement was, at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, winning the gold medal in both the 10,000m race and the 5,000m race, which had been done only once before in Olympic history. Zátopek cemented his legendary status by then winning gold in the marathon, a 42-km competition that he had never run before.
No one has repeated that distance running trifecta. One wonders if it will ever be repeated.
There was little evidence as a child that Zátopek would become one of the greatest runners in the history of sport. While he was energetic, and ran around a lot, it was never with any focus or within a team sport. If not for an innocent schoolboy challenge in his neighborhood, Zátopek may never have discovered his talent.
In the absolutely absorbing book, Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time, the author, Richard Askwith, tells the story of the neighborhood schoolkids who organized a competition around the block. This “block” must have been huge because one lap around was approximately a kilometer long. And the person who ran the most laps would be the winner.
It’s not clear how old Zátopek was – perhaps he was 10, or 13. At any rate, kids of various ages and sizes clogged the starting line.
They set off, old and young all jumbled up. Most stopped after two or three laps; a few managed six or seven. But Emil, despite being by no means the eldest, just carried on running, lap after lap after lap. The afternoon wore on, and still he kept padding along. The other boys applauded and then, as the number of laps reached double figures, grew bored. Some went home; others started a card game on the side of the road. Emil kept running, on and on as the afternoon faded to evening, until no one could keep track of how many laps he had run – thirty? forty? – and he could scarcely stand. Even his Zátopekelder brothers joined in the congratulations. Emil considered this last detail so remarkable that he cherished the memory decades later.
By the time the 1952 Helsinki Olympics rolled around, Zátopek was favored to win the gold in the 10,000 meters. He had, after all, won the 10,000 meters at the 1948 London Olympics in world record time.
According to Askwith, Zátopek’s rivals Les Perry and Aleksandr Anufriyev dashed out to a fast start over the first six laps. Zatopek was running a respectable speed under 70 seconds a lap, and was content to stay in the middle of the pack, settling into a pace of 71 seconds per lap, “knowing that none of the others could live with such a pace indefinitely.” And the others could not. Zátopek lapped runner after runner, continuously building a lead. At the halfway point, Zátopek upped the pace, finishing the final lap at his fastest – 64 seconds. As Askwith described, “the field was soon strung out: a line of carriages pulled along by the Czech locomotive and, one by one, falling off.”
Zátopek crushed his own world record set in 1948 by an incredible 42.6 seconds, beating the silver medalist Alain Mimoun by over 90 meters. The French sports newspaper crowned Zatopek “la brute magnifique”. But for Zátopek , it was like he was a little boy in Kopřivnice again, running around the neighborhood block, his friends and brothers marveling at the kid who simply would not stop running.