The Greatest Distance Runner of All Time – Emil Zatopek Part 2: The Lessons of Pain and Winning the 5,000 Meter Finals at the 1952 Olympics

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Emil Zátopek (right) is congratulated by Alain Mimoun after the 5000m in Helsinki Getty

The pain of losing the 5,000 meters at the 1948 London Olympics was great. Coming from 40 meters off the lead, the growing legend of Emil Zátopek was about to be punctuated with an exclamation point with a miraculous come-from-behind victory. But the stars were not aligned for Zátopek as Gaston Reiff of Belgium managed to hold off Zátopek by a stride.

While Zátopek was the king of the 10,000 meter distance in 1952, already taking gold two days before at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, he was not necessarily favored to win the 5,000. Zátopek knew he was in for a fight. But he also knew that years of very hard work could pay off.

Richard Askwith, the author of one of my favorite books on Olympians, Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time, wrote that Zátopek was very motivated to overcome challenge with Herculean efforts. Once a teacher said to him, “you’ll never amount to anything in life.” In some ways, Zátopek lived his life proving his teacher wrong.

And once Zátopek realized that he could be a world-class runner, a champion runner, he dedicated himself to workouts that were punishing. Zátopek was in the midst of the interval training revolution that was changing sports training dramatically in the early to mid-20th century. But while interval training  focused on mixing up sets of light, medium and hard runs, Zátopek knew only one setting – hard. Here’s how Askwith explains the evolution of Zatopek’s running routine and mindset:

In his first forest excursions, Emil simply ran, exploring rather than training in a focused way; but he had soon grown tired of “killing time without a goal”. So he found some grassy stretches on which to do his interval training. a typical sessions involved twenty sets of about ‘about 250m’ and twenty of about 400m’. There was no accurate way of measuring the distances -but then he wasn’t in the habit of timing himself. The units he was interested in were units of effort: hard to quantify but, for the runner with sufficiently ruthless honesty, unmistakably real. Muhammad Ali once remarked that, when he did sit ups, he only started to count them when they began to hurt – ‘because they’re the only ones that count’. This seems to have been Emil’s approach too: he was raising the pain threshold. “It’s at the borders of pain and suffering,” he is supposed to have said, “that the men are separated from the boys.”

So there he was in Helsinki, in a real tight race in the 5,000-meter finals. With 2,000 meters to go, there were at least 5 runners competing for medals, including Gaston Reiff, the athlete who just beat Zátopek to the line in London four years earlier. Reiff was in the lead and attempted a charge that he hoped would blow the others away. But this time, Zatopek and the others stayed on his heels. In fact, Reiff, rebuffed and demoralized dropped out of the race spent. Now it was a four-way competition between Herbert Schade of Germany, Alain Mimoun of France and Chris Chataway of Britain. And this is the moment, according to Askwith, that Zátopek made all the hard work work.

Halfway down the back straight, Chataway, auburn hair flapping, sped past Schade, who responded by accelerating himself, as did Mimoun. With each flowing stride, Chataway looked more like a winner. But Emil, still in fourth, had persuaded himself that victory was, after all, in his grasp. The others were tiring. The others didn’t have those 40,000 fast laps in their legs. The others could be beaten. Going into the final bend, he had closed down the gap. Halfway round it, he launched a fresh attack, running wide past all three of his rivals in an agonised blur of flailing arms and pounding legs. Mimoun and Schade responded, pulling out to pass the tiring Chataway at the same time as Emil. For a tantailising fraction of a second, all four were abreast – and then…

Watch this video of Zátopek’s triumphant run. He simply pulls ahead. Chataway, scrambling, tumbles to the ground. Schade quickly fades, while Mimoun attempts to keep pace, but can only pound the track and watch as the gap between him and Zátopek increases. Zátopek runs away with the gold medal, setting an Olympic record. Only two days after the first 5000 meter heat, and four days after winning the gold in the 10,000 meters, Zátopek pulls off the distance double.

And the amazing thing is, Zátopek isn’t finished with his amazing achievements on the track in Helsinki. Zátopek would go on to win the marathon, and become the only person ever to win the 5k, 10k and marathon in a single Olympics.

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Chris Chataway falls.