The Greatest Distance Runner of All Time – Emil Zatopek Part 5: “Never Was a Greater Man”

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Alain Mimoun and Emil Zatopek
Alain Mimoun had crossed the finish line of the marathon in Melbourne, and had won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics. The Algerian-born Frenchman watched the other finishers cross the line – the silver medalist from Yugoslavia, and the bronze medalist from Finland. A Korean finished, followed by a Japanese. And finally, the Czech arrived. And Mimoun rushed to his friend, Emil Zátopek. Here is how Richard Askwith, author of a wonderful biography on Zátopek, described this beautiful interaction:

“Emil, congratulate me,” he said. “I am an Olympic champion.” After all those years as Emil’s shadow, he was now the hero in his own right. “Emil turned and looked at me,” Mimoun recalled in later life, “as if he were waking from a dream.” He got to his feet, took two steps backward, “snapped to attention”, took off his cap and saluted him. Then he embraced him. “For me,” said Mimoun, “that was better than a medal.”

Zátopek was a truly great athlete. But for those who knew him, he was an even greater man. We note when we meet someone so open and sincere, so kind and generous. In addition to being considered, arguably, the greatest track athlete of the 20th century, people the world over who met the great Zátopek often leave him thinking he represents the very best of humanity. There are many stories of him being so giving of his possessions and his time. He’s provided training tips to competing athletes and coaches. He’s invited strangers into his home. He’s fought and cajoled authority in order to help or even save his friends.

This was an athlete who was not just fast but heroically tough. A hard man, but also a man of infectious warmth and humour. A man who never gave up, never complained, and never forgot that, in words that will always be associated with his name: “Great is the victory, but greater still is the friendship.” His fellow Olympians worshipped him. The Englishman Gordon Pirie praised his “magnificent character”; the Frenchman Alain Mimoun called him “a saint”; Fred Wild, the American, called him “perhaps the most humble, friendly and popular athlete in modern times”; Ron Clarke, the Australian, said: “There is not, and never was, a greater man than Emil Zátopek.” (Askwith)

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Ron Clarke, who set 17 world records in distance running, was as taken with Zátopek as Mimoun was. But Clarke, for whatever reason, was the recipient of a breathtakingly kind gift, a story that has become legend.

It was 1966 and Clarke was in his prime. There was a track meet to be held in Prague, and the national broadcaster, CSTV, asked Zátopek if he would personally invite Clarke to participate in the meet. Of course, Zátopek did so, warmly asking the Australian track star to attend. Clarke was humbled to be asked by Zátopek, cancelling other events so he could go.

As soon as Clarke arrived in Prague, the two great distant runners were nearly inseparable. Zátopek met Clarke on the tarmac, got him waved through immigration and customs, and basically chauffeured Clarke for several days. He drove him to the track meet from Clarke’s hotel and cheered him on. He took him shopping. He even took him to one of his favorite training spots in the woods of Stará Boleslav where they worked out together.

“It was a beautiful forest, and we did a huge workout, talking and chatting, and he showed me all the training things he did,” said Clarke according to Askwith. “Emil was eight years into his retirement, but Clarke later wrote that it had been one of the most demanding sessions he had done for a long time.”

Eventually it was time for Clarke to return to Australia. Of course, Zátopek drove him to the airport, whisked him through the red tape, and said goodbye. He handed Clarke a gift, a small object wrapped in plain brown paper, held together with a piece of string. According to Askwith, who interviewed Clarke about his time in Prague, Clarke was not sure what the object was for or why he should receive something like this, so he did not look at it until he arrived in London. Perhaps it was something that Zátopek wanted to have surreptitiously brought out of the country, so Clarke wanted to make sure he was out of Czech air space.

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Ron Clarke holding the gold medal given to him by Emil Zatopek
And according to Askwith, based on review of several sources, Clarke finally looked at the gift. In fact early references to this story placed him inside the private confines of a lavatory stall.

In an account given much nearer the event, he [Clarke] retreated to the toilet. Either way, he was sitting alone and unobserved as he unwrapped a small box. Inside was an Olympic gold medal – one of the three that Emil had won in Helsinki. Emil had signed inside of the lid, adding (in the limited space available): “to Ron Clarke, Prag. 19-7-1966”. For a moment, realizing what it was, he felt “overwhelming excitement”. And then (reverting here to the earlier account) he understood what it meant – and: “I sat on the lavatory seat and wept.”

What prompted Zátopek to gift a symbol of one of the greatest athletic accomplishments in human history to a person he knew only for a few days?

It may be a conundrum for us normal folk – people who could not imagine surrendering such an artifact of personal accomplishment, something that would be treasured not only by the individual, but by people around that person, a reflection of greatness that come to the very few. Most would hold on to it as a family keepsake; some would guard it and the reputation it enhances like a jealous person.

For people like Zátopek, people were the prize. “Great is the victory,” he said, “but greater is the friendship.”