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.

Chris Chataway falls.

Bob Schul


It’s not an uncommon story. The shy or sickly child finds his way through sport. Bob Schul was not born with gregarious social graces, and tended to stick to himself. In the sixth grade, one of his few social interactions was playing tag with his fellow students, where he learned something important. “I found out I could get away and they couldn’t catch me.”

It was a childhood insight that would lead Schul to distance running, to the track team at Miami  University of Ohio, a tutorship under Mihaly Igloi, the legendary track coach from Hungary, and gold medal glory at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Schul would become the first and only American to win the 5,000-meter race in Olympic history.

But first, Schul had to discover himself.

He knew he was a fast runner. But as he developed as an athlete, he and his coaches also learned he was tough, as well as toughminded. Schul addressed students his alma mater in 2014, and told them a couple of stories from his youth that spoke to a powerful internal drive.

In high school, Schul joined the football team – that’s American football, a sport in which you wear heavy padding and helmets and you launch yourself as projectiles into each other. As Schul told me, he was 155 cm tall and weighed only 59 kilos, and his teammates were 70 to 90 kilos heavy. “I had no business playing football.” He said that his high school was small, but his football team was very good, league champs in the previous five or so years.

There he was in a team practice, lined up in a Statue of Liberty, as a right end. The ball was snapped, he came off the line and back to the quarterback who handed him the ball. Schul swept left and tried to turn the corner when a defender crashed into Schul’s right side. Schul staggered to his feet, and likely in today’s game, might have sat down, if not for a play, for the rest of the game. Schul was back in the huddle, and played out the scrimmage, getting hit time and time again by the bigger boys. It was year’s later when talking with university football players that Schul actually had a hip pointer, and that players wore special foam protection for the hip, because “you can’t play with a hip pointer.” But Schul did, taking the punishment.

Bob Schul in high school
After graduating from high school, Schul enrolled at his neighborhood university, Miami of Ohio. He was not there on a scholarship. And in when he started, he was just fortunate to get a job washing dishes in the school dorm. But he was on the track team, and through the years, he worked himself into star status. It was April, 1964, only half a year from the Tokyo Olympics. Miami of Ohio was hosting a dual meet with a track team from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Schul decided that he would go for it, he would try to break the four-minute mile.

Roger Bannister had already accomplished that milestone, as it were, ten years previously, but no one had ever done it before in Ohio. So when Schul let it be known he was going for it on his home track, the buzz began. First things first, the track was a mess, particularly the inside track which had gotten messy due to the Spring rains. In the days before all-weather tracks, people ran on tracks that were composed of rocks or waste product formed into chunks and broken down more finely. The rain had washed bigger chunks of rock onto the inside track. The excess cinder had to be carted off and the track smoothed before the event. Schul told officials this needed to be done and volunteered to help.

As it turned out, nobody came out to clear the track, so he started doing it himself. He

Venuste Niyongabo

Burundi is a dot in the middle of the African continent. Agonized by decades of tribal conflict between Hutus and Tutsi, and one of the world’s poorest countries, the former French colony is not a sporting hotbed.

Despite the challenges, the International Olympic Committee finally recognized Burundi when it established a National Olympic Committee (NOC), allowing this landlocked and resource-poor country to join the Olympics at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

New countries rarely do well in the competitions. Their’s is an opportunity to compete, experience and learn. In fact, 75 of the current 206 countries with National Olympic committees have not won an Olympic medal, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Honduras, Libya, Nicaragua and Rwanda.

But Vénuste Niyongabo helped Burundi beat all the odds, and has given hope to all nations bereft of Olympic glory. He was a 1500-meter runner, a rising star on the international circuit in the 1990s, and in 1996. When the IOC recognized Burundi’s NOC, Niyongabo was indeed considered a favorite for the Atlanta Olympics. But in a nod to an aging compatriot, Niyongabo gave up his spot in the 1500 meters to Dieudonné Kwizera. If Burundi had had a NOC prior to 1996, it is likely that Kwizera would have competed at the Seoul and/or Barcelona Games. Thanks to Niyongabo, the 800-meter specialist became an Olympian for the first time.

Niyongabo moved up to the 5,000-meter competition instead, an event he had run in only twice previously. Although he had won both, he was not favored in Atlanta. And in fact, sat towards the back while the Kenyans led for much of the race. But win he did, and convincingly. Here’s how the New York Times described it in 1996:

With 200 meters left, his (Niyongabo’s) lead was comfortable over the eventual silver medalist Paul Bitok of Kenya and the eventual bronze medalist Khalid Boulami of Morocco. When Niyongabo crossed the finish line, Dionisi was already hopping up and down in the stands, waving a Burundian flag. Before long, that flag was being waved on an Olympic track for the first time in history.

In the end, Niyongbo put his victory in context, reflecting on the decades of internecine conflict in his tiny country. “All I want is peace for my country,” Niyongabo said. “I hope this can help the healing.”

Lasse Viren wins 5000m gold in Montreal
Lasse Virén of Finland winning gold in the 5,000 meters in Montreal

When you fall in a highly competitive race, it’s over for you, particularly for sprinters. But even in long-distance foot races, falling not only places you way in the back of the pack, it becomes a psychological burden as you see your competitors fly by you.

And yet, Lasse Virén of Finland was not fazed. Virén was competing in the 10,000 meters in the Munich Olympics in 1972. It was the 12th lap of a 25-lap race when Virén’s leg hit the leg of Belgian runner, Emiel Puttemans, sending Virén tumbling to the cinder track. Famed Tunisian runner, Mohamed Gammoudi, also took a nasty spill tripping over Virén’s body. Virén, who fell behind by 20 meters, got up quickly, and re-started those long strides, getting back into the race after four laps.

In the last lap and a half, Virén stepped on the gas. But as this thrilling account from The Guardian relates, the man whose leg sent Virén to the ground 12 laps earlier was now breathing down Virén’s back.

At the bell, Virén raised the pace yet again, and Yifter was unable to respond. The air was suddenly too thick for his limbs. But Puttemans held on. The small Belgian, his face contorting with determination, closed the slight gap that Virén had opened up. ‘I believed I had a chance to win the gold medal,’ he said later. ‘Lasse was five metres ahead and I knew I must take my chance going into the final bend.’ So Puttemans moved on to Virén’s shoulder. The Finn accelerated. ‘As we came round to the home straight,’ Puttemans said, ‘I knew the gold was his.’ You could see Puttemans absorb this painful truth, but make an instantaneous reappraisal of ambition: he looked over his shoulder, to make sure Yifter was far enough behind him to be no threat, and settled for silver.

Virén not only won, but smashed the world record for the 10,000 meter race that had stood for seven years. Virén went on to win the 5,000 meter competition in the Munich Games, accomplishing the so-called “double”, which had been done only three times prior to Virén, and three times after him. Even more amazingly, Virén did it again, winning both the 5,000m and 10,000m races at the Montreal Games in 1976, the only “Double-Double” ever.

You can watch Virén years later watching himself win the 10,000 meter race in Munich on video below.

Bob Hayes, from the book "Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service"
Bob Hayes, from the book “Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service”

Yeah, you’re the fastest man in the world. But you’re running in the first lane, the most beat up sodden lane after two weeks of competition, and you can’t find your shoes.

This was the predicament that “Bullet” Bob Hayes found himself in, according to Bob Schul, in his book, “In the Long Run”.

Just in front of me was Bob Hayes, who seemed to be searching for something. “Bob, what are you doing?” I questioned. “Aren’t you supposed to run the next race?”

“Bob, I can’t find my shoes!” he said in a very worried tone.

“Can’t find your shoes! Where did you leave them?”

“Here, right here!” he answered frantically. “Every day I leave them under this bench while I warm up.” Then he stopped and turned to me. “I know where they are! They’re under my bed at the village! I forgot to bring them!” He looked at my spikes and I knew what he was thinking.

“I wear size 10 and a half, Bob,” I said.

“Too big! What am I going to do?” Just then Tom Farrell entered the area. Tom was in the in_the_long_run800 final, which followed the 100 meters. It was apparent what Bob was thinking, and he ran over to Tom and asked what size spikes he word. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but within seconds Bob had Tom’s shoes and was running for the check-in room.

As I waited for the bus outside the stadium I heard the final results of the 100 meters. Bob Hayes had set an Olympic record in winning the gold medal. “Way to go, Bob,” I said out loud.

Bob Hayes set a world record running the 100 meters in 10 seconds flat.

Bob Schul had already won gold in the 5,000 meters, the only American Olympic champion in that event.

Tom Farrell would find glory four years later in 1968, wining bronze in the 800 meter race. He graduated from Archbishop Molloy High School, which is a 5-minute walk from where I grew up in Queens. I spent many a summer day playing stickball in that high school parking lot.

Bob Schul victorious_
Bob Schul upon winning the 5,000 meter race in Tokyo, from the book “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16”

There comes a moment in your life, hopefully, when you realize that you are not apart from the world, that “no one is an island entire of itself”.

In the 1960s, the support from national Olympic committees and sports associations was not as great as it is today. Unless you were from a family of means, world-class athletes training for the Olympics had to sacrifice significantly to make ends meet. When long-distance runner, Bob Schul, was selected for the US track and field team, he did not have the means to bring his wife on the journey to Tokyo. His military paycheck yielded only $78 a month, which almost all went to food and the gas to pay for his car trips to the military base so he could train.

But as Schul related in his stirring autobiography, “In the Long Run”, schoolchildren in his hometown went door to door raising money in order to buy air ticket for Sharon Schul. Along with this financial contribution and a telegram with all the donor’s names – family and friends all – came this wonderful, heartfelt letter.

Dear Bob,

This is our way of expressing in you the pride we feel in our hearts at this time. The entire community has gained in civic pride from your achievements and representation. When you face the starting line and look up at the throng in that vast stadium, you’ll not be alone; for sitting there in spirit, and cheering you on, will be 3500 happy and emotion-packed citizens of West Milton. As the race is in progress, there will be 3500 heartbeats running in unison to yours. When you start your kick in that last lap, there’ll be 3500 people praying for you to have the strength to do your best. Win…lose…or draw, you’re a champion and first-class citizen in the minds and hearts of the people of this community. Good luck and God bless you.

A grateful Schul went on to win gold in the 5,000 meter race in 1964, the first and only American to do so in the Olympic Games.