Horace Ashenfelter ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev in 3000meter steeplechase
Horace Ashenfelter ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev in 3000meter steeplechase

It was 1952 at the Helsinki Olympics, and the Cold War was heating up.

Making their first appearance at the Olympics were the Soviet Union. And in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the favorites were Russians Vladimir Kazantsev, and Mikhail Saltykov, both world record holders with times under 9 minutes. Horace Ashenfelter, an American whose best at the time was nearly 18 seconds slower than Kazantsev’s best, was not given a chance to win the steeplechase competition.

And yet the American press played up the geo-political theme, particularly since Ashenfelter was an FBI agent in the US government. As Red Smith wrote in his column on July 26, 1952,

It was evident at Wednesday’s steeplechase heats that the final would bring about the carnival’s first head-on, man to man clash between an American and a Russian. A lot of people had been waiting for such a match ever since it became apparent, long before the games opened, that the 15th Olympics would be chiefly a Russian-American struggle. Before the heats, however, nobody had dreamt that the match might come about in the steeplechase. All the tall tales about a generation of supermen rehearsing behind the iron curtain had made special mention of Vladimir Kazantsev of Kiev, who had been charging over the obstacles at speeds the outside world had never seen.

With such a foe looming, Ashenfelter was given little chance. In the book, The Heart of a Champion, he was teased about his likely fate at the hand of the Russians:

“Horace, how is it going to feel to be out there running on the track when Kazantsev is in taking a shower and on his way home?” Another team-mate said, “I’ll bet Horace will have only three laps to go when Kazantsev is getting his gold medal.”

And yet, Ashenfelter was never fazed by the challenge. As stated in this interview, Ashenfelter was in prime shape and had nothing to lose.

I’m a pretty confident guy, actually and – put it this way – he had to beat me. It was the first time and only time where I had about three weeks of controlled training and rest. I had fine tuned my weight and weighed 128 pounds which I carried on five feet nine frame as compared to my normal weight of 140. I was in outstanding shape and had no bad luck occur. I was just going to stay with the pace as long as I could and to make the pace if I had to – I didn’t mind that.

He got suckered by his coaches as his plan they had was for him to stay with me. That meant that he was running on my right shoulder the whole race and adding three or four yards to each lap. I ran him a little bit wide on the corners and we bumped several times as he was running that close to me. That didn’t bother me but it may have bothered him – I don’t know. I knew I had a lot left at the end.

The American press lapped up the victory. As Smith wrote in his column, “The G man, reluctant to keep his back turned on a Commie, trotted back and slapped Kazantsev on the blouse of his britches.”

It was not known at that time that Kazantsev was also a KGB Agent, but one could imagine that Red Smith’s rhetoric would have been even more provocative.

As for Ashenfelter, he could care less about the Cold War drama on the track. “He was just an opponent. The media writes what they think and what they believe will attract readers.”

On January 6, 2018, Horace Ashenfelter passed away at the age of 94.

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Roys Star Wars memorabilia

I admit it.

I was a very geeky Star Wars fan. On May 25, 1977, 40 years ago today, I cut school with a couple of other junior high school buddies to see the highly anticipated opening of George Lucas‘ magnus opus at the Astor Plaza Theater in Manhattan.

I own original Star Wars posters, buttons, trading cards and various promotional items from that period. I even created a quiz that tested the Star Wars acumen of my friends, to very nerdy depths.

One thing I didn’t know at the time was that the iconic baddie in black, Darth Vader, was represented by more than two people. We all knew that David Prowse was the body inside, and that James Earl Jones intoned Vader’s menace with his breathy baritone. But we didn’t know that the swordbuckling Vader was animated by a 1952 Helsinki Olympian from England named Bob Anderson.

Anderson of Alverstoke, Hampshire served in World War II with the Royal Marines, where, according to The Independent, he learned how to fence. After the war, Anderson found success in competition, succeeding in the 1950 British Empire Games before joining TeamGB at the World Championships and the Helsinki Games. While his team finished fifth, Anderson went on to coach Great Britain’s fencing teams for the next five Olympics. His teams took silver at both the 1960 Rome Olympics and 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Along the way, Anderson became the go-to guy for swordbuckling fill-ins and fencing choreography in film. He worked with Errol Flynn in The Master of Ballantrae, Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Caribbean, and Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Zorro films.

Mark Hamill with Olympian and Darth Vader stand in Bob Anderson
Mark Hamill with Olympian and Darth Vader stand-in Bob Anderson

He was also brought in to choreograph the lightsaber fight between Obi-wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in Star Wars. When Lucas began work for the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, it was likely determined that Prowse could not execute the lightsaber duels to the precision desired. That’s when Anderson the choreographer became Anderson the dark lord. It is Anderson who duels with Mark Hamill in The Empire Strikes Back, and it is Anderson’s Vader who cuts Luke Skywalker’s right hand off.

Anderson went on to reprise Vader’s lightsaber scenes in The Return of the Jedi. At the time, however, Anderson’s screen presence was never officially acknowledged. Upon the release of The Return of the Jedi, which I also saw on opening day, May 25, 1983, Hamill felt he needed to let the world know the truth about his on-screen dad in an interview with Starlog Magazine. “Bob Anderson was the man who actually did Vader’s fighting. It was always supposed to be a secret, but I finally told (director) George (Lucas) I didn’t think it was fair any more. Bob worked so bloody hard that he deserves some recognition. It’s ridiculous to preserve the myth that it’s all done by one man.”

I didn’t know this until recently. I will have to add this to my quiz.

Bob Anderson and Mark Hamill training for ROTJ
Bob Anderson training with Mark Hamill in Return of the Jedi

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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)

emil-zatopek-portrait

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.”

 

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“He runs like a man who has just been stabbed in the heart.”

It sounds too good be true – Hollywood script perfect.

The balding veteran, past his prime, and yet a threat in the back of the minds of the favorites, gets himself ready at the starting line of the marathon. This wasn’t Finland. It is Australia, where it is 30 degrees celsius, a good dozen degrees hotter, and where Emil Zátopek won the marathon to cap an unprecedented sweep of golds in the 5k, 10k and marathon at the 1952 Olympics.

Like a weary warrior, about to lead his troops, one more time into the breach, he is said to have uttered these famous words to his fellow competitors: “Men, today we die a little.”

According to Richard Askwith, author of a brilliant biography of Zátopek , it is unclear if Zátopek said these words at that moment, but based on his deep understanding of the man, he believes he could have said them. “It is hard to think of a neater encapsulation of his spirit: his cheerful camaraderie; his dry humour; and his slightly bonkers bravado in the face of the agonies of his sport. It was also, in context, a starkly accurate prognosis.”

When Zátopek finished the marathon in sixth place, his Olympic career was over. At the age of 34, Zátopek , who over three Olympiads since 1948, became perhaps the most famous athlete in the world, and a beloved hero in his home country of Czechoslovakia. And while one marathon finished, another one would begin.

The Cold War in Europe was reaching frigid temperatures. Just prior to the 1956 Melbourne Games, the Soviet Union had sent troops into Budapest, Hungary to quell an uprising. Twelve years later, Soviet troops would enter Prague, Czechoslovakia for similar reasons. As described in my previous post on Zatopek, the folk hero of Czechoslovakia, when the tanks entered the Czech capital, was at the center of the invasion, shouting in protest for all to see, moving from tank to tank in an attempt to talk sense (in Russian) into the Soviet soldiers. While Zatopek had no noticeable impact on the Soviet presence, his own role in these protests were noticed by the authorities.

With the reformist government in Czechoslovakia brought to heel, and a Soviet-friendly regime in place, Zátopek’s life was turned upside down. Due to his legendary status, he was not sent to a labor prison, nor did he end up deceased. Instead, he found himself out of a job, no longer a member of the Czechoslovakian Army or the Communist Party. He was, as Askwith explained in this synopsis of his book, Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time, a pariah. He could not find work easily. His name was scrubbed from the history books, his many sporting accomplishments – a source of immense pride to Czech leaders and citizens alike up to that time – only to be uttered in whispers.

While Zátopek was one of the most beloved personalities in sports the world over, in Czechoslovakia, friends and relatives were reluctant to go near him. The only work he could find tended to be isolated and hard, which likely caused Zatopek to drink heavily. His marriage suffered and he aged quickly. As Askwith poignantly shows in the synopsis article, he had lost his joie de vivre.

Once, near the village of Lytomysl, a local woman sent her son to present him with a small gift, a piece of smoked meat. The boy was shocked by the disheveled figure who opened the maringotka door. “I am not the Zátopek you used to know,” confessed Emil, bottle in hand.

But like a marathon, eventually over time, you get closer to the goal you long for. Zátopek endured a public shunning and an unofficial banishment to the hinterlands for some five years. But he was not forgotten outside Czechoslovakia. When the Summer Olympics were to be held in Munich in 1972, Zátopek was invited. When the foreman of his mining team refused to allow Zátopek leave for three weeks to be the guest of honor of the world’s greatest sporting fest, back-channel discussions went into hyperdrive, and finally Zátopek was allowed to leave the country and be celebrated in Germany.

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The funeral of Emil Zatopek

A year later, Zátopek was invited to attend the funeral of famed Finnish runner, Pavel Nurmi. His quick and uneventful visit to Finland, coupled with a sudden flow of requests to have Zátopek be a guest of honor at this meet or that, made Czech officials realize that lying about Zátopek’s availability was becoming an unnecessary burden. Zátopek was not going to flee and embarrass the country, and was in fact, reminding the world that Zátopek was a legendary athlete from Czechoslovakia.

Zátopek never returned to folk hero status in Czechoslovakia, even after the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989,when then President Vaclav Havel awarded Zátopek the “Order of the White Lion”, officially rehabilitating his reputation. But when he passed away in 2000, the outpouring of respect and love for the ungainly and misproportioned runner from Kopřivnice was immense.

Zátopek’s life-long marathon had ended. But as Juan Antonio Samaramnch, then president of the International Olympic Committee said upon the posthumous awarding of the Pierre de Coubertin medal to Zátopek, “Emil was a living legend. And a legend never dies.”

juan-antonio-samaranch-at-emil-zatopeks-funeral
Juan Antonio Samaranch (second from right), President of the International Olympic Committee, attends the funeral of Czech runner Emil Zatopek December 6, 2000 at the National Theater in Prague, Czech Republic. December 06, 2000
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Emil Zátopek during the Soviet invasion

It was July, 1952. The Czech national team had already departed for Helsinki, Finland to take part in the Olympic Games. But their most famous team member, Emil Zátopek , was not on the plane. His wife, Dana, was an emotional wreck, wondering what was happening with her husband? Was he in trouble? Was he in prison?

Zátopek was actually at the airport and ready to head for the Games when he learned that a teammate, Stanislav Jungwirth, was denied the credentials to leave Czechoslovakia. According to the book, Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time, Jungwirth’s father was in prison for political offenses, and so the Czech powers that be thought the father’s son would a flight risk.

According to the books’ author, Richard Askwith, In the post-war period, with the growing tensions of the Cold War, the socialist Czech government was highly sensitive to criticism and fearful of defections; in fact, they had arrested the entire ice hockey team – the reigning world champions – before they departed for a tournament in London as players were said to be singing disrespectful songs, and worse, contemplating defection.

But Zátopek was outraged, and would not stand for this level of authoritarian heavy handedness, particularly in regards to a teammate. Zátopek was actually a member of the government, an officer in the Czech Army. But he also had an independent streak, one that grew wider and brighter as his global fame as a track phenomenon grew. He gambled that his name and reputation were bigger than the collective pride of the Czech government by informing the authorities that he too would not fly to Helsinki and participate in the Olympics if Jungwirth was forced to remain in Czechoslovakia.

Askwith stated that Jungwirth pleaded with Zátopek to go to Helsinki, not wanting to be the reason that Czechoslovakia’s greatest athlete did not go to the Olympics. And yet, Zátopek insisted.

News of Jungwirth’s exclusion emerged the evening before the athletes were due to fly, when they turned up at the Ministry of Sport to collect their travel documents. Jungwirth was devastated to find that there were none for him, but quickly accepted that making a scene would only make matters worse. But Emil was incandescent. ‘No way,’ he told the officials. “If Standa does not go, nor will I.” Then he stormed out, leaving his paperwork behind him. The next day, on the morning of the flight, Jungwirth implores Zátopek to calm down. Emil insists on standing his ground. He gives Jungwirth his team outfit and tells him to return it to the Ministry when he returns his own. Then he goes off to train alone at Prague’s Strahov stadium.

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Zatopek addresses crowds during the Prague Spring of 1968, which was brutally repressed by Soviet. Photos: Marathon man

Somehow, Zátopek’s gamble pays off. Jungwirth is given his papers so he and Zátopek can take off for Helsinki. But the risk was significant. Zátopek could have lost his job in the military or even worse, his freedom.

Perhaps less personally impactful, but more relevant to the world of sports, Zátopek would have lost a chance at glory – which as it turns out was the singular greatest Olympics for a single track and field athlete. Zatopek won the 10,000 meter and 5,000 meter competitions, as well as the marathon within an 8-day period. No one had ever done that before. No one since.

This was at the time, an extreme act of political defiance. Up to that point, Captain Zátopek was an officer who essentially did as the military instructed him. As Askwith writes, “thanks to his fame and achievements, he was an irresistible instrument of Party propaganda: a one-man solution to the problem of national morale. Proclaiming the Party line – often in speeches that had been written for him – became as crucial a part of his duties as winning races.”

In fact after Helsinki, he would continue to toe the Party Line. But there were limits.

Many years after the Zátopek’s Olympic swan song at the 1956 Melbourne Games and his retirement from international competition, Zatopek was still a very popular personality

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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.

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Dana and Emil Zatopek, gold medal couple at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics
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.

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All alone at the end of the 10,000 meter race.
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.

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Sammy Lee on the podium (center) at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics
  • He was a doctor.
  • He was an officer in the US Army, serving in Korea.
  • He was an Olympian, a two-time gold medalist in platform diving.
  • And he was a coach of Olympians, both formally and informally, not just of American medalists, but of divers around the world.

He was Dr. Sammy Lee. And on December 2, 2016, this great man passed away.

I am an Asian American, and I am proud of the example my grandfather, and my father – both of whom are people I can openly say are my role models. But for Asian Americans, we sometimes complain about our lack of Asian American heroes on the big screen, in the big leagues, in the government. It’s a silly thought of course – examples abound and I won’t list them here (because I am Asian).

But if I were to mention one special role model in the sporting world, it would have to be Dr. Sammy Lee, a Korean American and a diving legend. To be honest, until I started my book project on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I was not so aware of him, although I was familiar with the name. However, when I met diving Olympians like Frank Gorman, Soren Svejstrup, Jeanne Collier, and Bob Webster, I realized that Sammy Lee transcended race, that he was a role model for the world, particularly for the world of diving.

sammy-leeHe inspired: He was the very best in platform diving in the world, winning the gold medal in the 10 meter dive at the 1948 London Games, and the 1952 Helsinki Games, in addition to being a medical doctor and an officer in the US Army.

He knew how to get the best out of you: In this article, two-time gold medalist Webster told me that Lee knew how to light a fire in your belly, how to believe in yourself, and how he would do it with equal parts pressure and humor. He was regimented in his training plan for you and he was strict in making you follow it, but he got results out of you.

He was committed to you, in many cases, for life: Lee took diving champion Greg Louganis into his home to train him for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In this article, I wrote that he spent time coaching promising young divers who showed up without coaches, eventual champions like Gorman and Svejstrup, and always stayed in touch.

Collier told me that Lee would always have a camera and would make sure he took a picture of the divers he knew as they stood on the medal podium, and then send it to them. “He is one of the greatest people on the planet,” gushed Collier.

Said Svejstrup, who said that at a time in his career when he was inexperienced and unsure of himself, Lee stood up for him. “I was grateful, and of course I lost my heart to Sammy forever.”

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Nina Ponomareva in Rome.

In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union were finally invited to the Summer Olympic Games. In 1952, with a will to establish the superiority of their system through sport, the Soviets garnered 71 total medals, including 22 golds, to finish second in the medals race.

The first gold went to Nina Ponomareva, who won the women’s discus throw, and glory for her country, setting an Olympic record as well. “Only after I had felt a heavy golden circle in my hand, I realized what happened. I am the first Soviet Olympic Champion, you know, the first record-holder of the 15th Olympiad…Tears were stinging my eyes. How happy I was!

She would go on to win bronze in Melbourne in 1956, and then gold again at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. That’s an impressive track record. Unfortunately, when Ponomareva passed away in August, she was remembered for something else.

In 1956, prior to the Melbourne Games, the Soviets were invited to a bilateral track and field meet between Great Britain and the Soviet Union in London. Ponomareva stepped into a C&A Modes, which The New York Times informed me was a low-priced clothing store on Oxford Street, and was said to have shoplifted. According to the Herald Scotland, Ponomareva was “arrested on charges of shoplifting four feather hats (white, mauve, black, and yellow) plus a red woolen one, costing a total of £1.65.”

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Nina Ponomareva in Helsinki.

When the team manager Konstatin Krupin heard of the arrest this doctor’s wife, teacher and 27-year-old mother, he pulled his team from the competition with Britain. The Bolshoi Ballet, which was headed to London, threatened to cancel their trip if British authorities did not retract the arrest and apologize. The UK Ambassador was summoned to the Kremlin for a good tongue lashing.

Forty four days after the arrest, Ponomareva came out of hiding in the Soviet Embassy. She was found guilty of shoplifting in court and asked to pay three guineas in costs. After that, she went straight to the harbor and got on a ship back home. Later that year, she failed to defend her Olympic championship in Melbourne (finishing third), but rebounded for gold four years later.

It is the legacy of the five hats that lived on beyond her golden glory. According to this obituary in The New York Times, Ponomareva’s name was cited during a debate on Britain’s actions during the Suez Crisis in the House of Commons. Labour member had this to say about the leading party’s foreign policy. “If the (Suez) Canal is vital to us, we take it,” he said. “This is the morality of Nina Ponomareva – ‘I like your hat, I will have it.'”