emil-zatopek-in-pain
“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.

emil-zatopek-funeral
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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CK Yang pole vauilting
Asian Iron Man C.K. Yang in his strongest decathlon event – the pole vault.

He had barely lost, losing by a mere 58 points in the decathlon to his best friend, Rafer Johnson, at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. Using the 2nd place finish as motivation, C. K. Yang went on to break the world record in April, 1963, and was viewed as the heavy favorite for gold at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.

But it was not to be. Not only did Yang fail to win gold, he fell to a disappointing fifth place. In fact, Yang was in ninth place at the end of day one, but had a very strong day two in which he won the 400-meter hurdles, pole vault and javelin throw events, clawing his way to fourth place before the final event. But Yang’s 13th-place finish in the final 1500-meter race meant that two Germans, a Russian and an American would finish ahead of him in the final placements.

A chance at a first-ever gold medal for Taiwan faded into that cool evening of October 20, 1964. Two explanations have been provided for Yang’s disappointing results: a recent change in the way scores were tallied for the decathlon, and Yang’s mysterious illness.

The decathlon scoring system was always considered complicated, as administrators have time after time adjusted the benchmarks and formulas to come up with scores that were perceived as fair so that athletes were satisfied with their points for a strong jump, or a speedy run, as well as with their points for a fantastic jump or a spectacular run. In 1964, the scoring tables were revised yet again. And the rule changes appeared to be heir apparent, Yang, at a disadvantage. Technology advancements in plastics resulted in the increasing prevalence of fiber-glass poles. Yang had mastered the new pole more quickly than others, enabling him to claim a world indoor record in the pole vault. As legendary New York Times sports writer, Arthur Daley, explained in a preview to the 1964 Olympic decathlon, the scoring revision hurt Yang.

“Not too long ago the International Amateur Athletic Federation updated and revised the decathlon scoring tables. This has hit Yang harder than most because he no longer can make a blockbuster score of fifteen hundred points in the pole vault. He still will be the decathlon favorite but not by the preponderant margin that once had been assigned to him. “

Daley went on to quote Yang that he wasn’t overly worried. “Of course I lose points by the new tables,” he said. “But I don’t think it will affect me over the whole thing.” Others, though, believed that Yang was indeed psychologically affected by the rule changes, particularly regarding the pole vault.

Willi Holdorf and C. K. Yang in 1964
Willi Holdorf and C.K. Yang after the decathlon’s 1500-meter race in Tokyo 1964, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service

Based on the revised scoring system, Yang’s world record of 9,121 points would convert to 8,087 points, which is significantly higher than gold medalist Willi Holdorf’s winning point total of 7,887. But clearly, at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Yang did not come close to his world-record times and distances of his 1963 world-record setting effort. The explanation at the time was that Yang was not 100% healthy. As his coach Ducky Drake said, Yang hurt his left knee about five weeks ago. He never got into shape and this was reflected in his performances.” Another report said that Yang was suffering from a cold.

But Yang’s buddy, Rafer Johnson, revealed in his book, The Best That I Can Be, a shocking explanation for Yang’s unexpected performance in 1964. Remember, this is the time of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, Mao’s China and Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan.

In the 1970s, C. K. had dinner with a man from Taiwan’s counterpart to our FBI. They were talking about the 1964 Olympics when the man dropped a bombshell: C. K. had been poisoned, he said. Because of the tension with mainland China, Taiwan had assigned two bodyguard to C.K. at the Games. Despite that precaution, this man told him, a teammate had spiked C. K.’s orange juice at one of their meals. Shortly afterward, that athlete and two Taiwanese journalists defected to Red China. C. K. had always considered himself unlucky for having gotten ill at the wrong time. Instead, he may have been a victim of political warfare. “I was so angry I thought I would cry,” he told me.

Woah.

For more stories on C. K. Yang, see the following:

There are 12 silver medals from the 1972 Munich Olympics packed away in a storage room inside the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. These medals have remained unclaimed for over 40 years.

The IOC insists these medals belong to the 12 members of the US men’s basketball team, who lost to the Soviet Union 51-50. This was the Soviet Union’s “Do-you-believe-in-miracles” moment. After all, up to that finals game on September 10, 1972, the US Men’s basketball team had a record of 63-0 in Olympic competition.

But a confluence or circumstances and a last-second comedy of errors turned the men’s basketball finals in Munich into one of sports’ history’s most intriguing and controversial moments. In fact, a young Bob Costas refers to this game twenty years later at his 1992 Barcelona Olympics broadcast as “so controversial, so galling, still so difficult to accept.”

celebrating victory US Men's basketballt team 1972
US Men’s basketball team celebrating prematurely.

To be fair, the Soviet Union at the time had a strong, experienced team, and the US team were a collection of college greats, which meant they were very young and did not play extensively together until the year of the Olympics. Unfortunately for legendary coach, Hank Iba, UCLA center, Bill Walton, chose not to play on the team, which made the US team more vulnerable to the Soviet’s bulk up front.

Additionally, according to guard Tom Henderson, the coach had made a strategic error by playing a slow-down game even though the US had a team of “young deers” who “should have run them back to Russia.” So at the half they were down 26-21, and losing into the second half. But with 8 minutes left, the Americans began to run and score. With scant time left and a point behind, shooting guard Doug Collins was undercut while driving to the basket, slamming into the basket base. Woozy, Collins stepped up the free thrown line and knocked down the free throws to give the Americans a 50-49 lead with seconds left.

How many seconds left? That’s the gist of the controversy. And while I could attempt to explain it here, it really is very complicated. There are actually a large number of micro-actions that had to take place before a time-out was officially recognized according to rules at the time, and the compressed time frame and high stakes of the moment made it close to impossible to ensure clarity. And in fact, there were three separate in-bound plays. In other words, the play was re-done…twice. (Read details here).

soveit men's basketball team celebrate 1972
Soviets celebrating their “Do-you-believe-in-miracles” moment

After the initial inbound play right after the second free throw, the Soviets appeared to have one second left. In the first re-do, the Soviets were awarded three seconds, which gave them time to set up a play. They inbounded, the Soviets rushed as time slipped away, threw a meaningless pass, and suddenly, the Americans were celebrating on the court with dozens of other officials and spectators. Unfortunately, in all the chaos, the time-keeper had kept the clock at one second remaining, failing to revert the clock back to 3 seconds. Again, without

“One of the great advantages of Army service is the opportunity for travel to far off lands. The American Service Man has a serious job to do overseas. But off duty time often finds him enjoying his stay almost as if he were a tourist.”

The Big Picture_Sgt Queen
Sgt Stuart Queen, screenshot from The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan

Thus begins the film, “The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan”, one of a weekly series of television films produced by the US Army about 60 years ago. This film probably served a few purposes: as a training film for soldiers headed to Japan in the late 1950s, as a recruiting film for potential Army soldiers, and as general PR for the US Army.

The film is amazing in its coverage of Japan, commenting on almost everything you could think of: the mystique, the life of the farmer and fisherman, Shintoism, sushi and sukyaki, the coastlines and the mountains, Hakone, Hiroshima, Osaka, rush-hour traffic, tea ceremony, sumo, industry, etc. etc. etc.

There is a bit of subtle ridicule and patronization as you can imagine:

  • Yes, it could almost be the USA, if not for the proof to the contrary that strikes your eye. Those signs may be just a lot of chicken tracks to you, but to the Japanese, they mean a lot.
  • Sushi is boiled rice with a slice of raw fish on it. It tastes just like, well, boiled rice with a slice of raw fish on it.

There is also considerable praise:

  • Roads are the among the “best in our country”. The shoreline is comparable to the Rivera and the coastline in Florida and California coastlines.
  • There is almost no illiteracy in Japan.
  • What strikes you about the Great Buddha (in Kamakura) is the poise, the steady quiet calm of the face, the way the hands are laid in the lap, palms upward, thumbs touching. Poise and calm – you’ll see these qualities in the face and manner of Japanese everywhere.

The film begins with a description of two US Army archetype newbies to Japan, exaggerated but with elements of truth: Worrying Willy and Paradise Pete.

The Big Picture_Shifty Japanese
How Worrying Willy sees the Japanese, screenshot from The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan

Worrying Willy: He remembers in WWII great stretches of Japan were leveled to rubble by American bombs. Willy still has the idea that Japan is like this (video of bombed out landscapes). Or maybe like this, carry overs from WWII – a hostile country , where down every dark winding alley looms the mysterious menace of the Orient. A straight shooter like Worrying Willy has to keep his wits about him, and his hand on his six-gun partner. Yes that’s Worrying Willy’s impression of Japan, as accurate as thinking that cattle graze on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Paradise Pete: He has an idea that Japan is an Oriental Paradise where all a fellow does is lounge around in a Never Never Land – all play and no work. Well this version of Japan, to quote a phrase he hears a lot when he gets here, “nebber hoppen”. He’d be better to approach Japan with an open mind, to get rid of phony impressions and start fresh.

The Big Picture_Paradise Pete
How Paradise Pete sees Japan, screenshot from The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan

During the explanation of Japan’s industrial strength comes the American military’s raison d’etre in Japan: “Japanese industry ranks among the leading industrial powers in the world. Right now, Japan is the only non-communist country in Asia that can build a diesel engine. It is this giant industrial power of Japan that is a prime target of international communism. To see that this prize keeps clear of communist hands is the main reason American fighting men are in japan today.”

Ah yes, the good ol’ Cold War days. True, the film is dated. But one phrase from the film is eternal: “The way Japan affects you will depend a lot on you.”

Igor Ter-Ovanesyan in 1964
Igor Ter-Ovanesyan in 1964

In 1964, there was an expectation that athletes would defect. It was the time of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, George Smiley and James Bond. The Cold War was real, and spooks were everywhere. According to a Sports Illustrated article from November 2, 1964, though, rumors were often just rumors.

In the Olympic Village, sportswriters had recurrent visions of Soviet athletes popping over the back fence and dashing for the U.S. Embassy. One report got around that Broad Jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan was practically under house arrest. The truth was that if concern was rampant among Soviet worriers over life in post-Khrushchev Russia, there was no panic and defections were not likely. Ter-Ovanesyan seemed to have complete freedom of movement and freedom of speech.

It wasn’t just 1964 that people thought Ter-Ovanesyan was susceptible to defecting. There was an actual attempt to do so in 1960. At those Games in Rome, American sprinter, David Sime, was in the running for a medal, if not the gold medal, in the 100 meters. Sime (sounds like “rim”) was pulled into the spy vortex, and was recruited by the US government to assist in persuading an athlete from the Soviet Union for defection. The mark was Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, a 22-year old at the time, who appeared to have a Western flair and a love for things Americana. He self-taught himself English. He listened to jazz. And his idol was Jesse Owens.

According to David Maraniss’ fascinating account in his book Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, Sime approached Ter-Ovanesyan on the track during a practice. They talked. They liked each other. They agreed to meet again for dinner. When they met for dinner, they talked about Ter-Ovanesyan’s life in the Soviet Union, which he claimed was pretty good: “In the Soviet Union, he was taken care of; he had an apartment, a car, a teaching slot at the sports university. ‘And they give me a lot if I win a medal here,’ he said. Sime said he did not know what the United States could offer, except freedom, maybe set up him up as a track star out in sunny California, out near the film stars and beautiful people and fast cars.”

David Same, Armin Hary and Peter Radford - silver, gold and bronze medalists in the 100 meter race in Rome 1960.
David Sime, Armin Hary and Peter Radford – silver, gold and bronze medalists in the 100 meter race in Rome 1960.

In other words, was Ter-Ovanesyan really looking to defect? Well,

Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964
Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, East and West Germany competed as one team, under a single flag, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Ode to Joy) their national anthem. But the unity of the “German” team was more of a mirage, as geopolitical realities extended Cold War distance to the athletes.

At the time, the Iron Curtain was a philosophical metaphor for the Cold War, but the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Berlin was a very real barrier. Only three days before the opening of the 1964 Olympic Games, it was reported that 57 people had successfully escaped from East to West Berlin through a tunnel dug under the wall. As was written in the AP report, “it was believed to be one of the biggest mass escapes since the Red Wall was erected in the summer of 1961.”

During the existence of the Wall, from 1961 to 1989, around 5,000 people escaped in a variety of ways – balloons, tightrope, and tunnels. The 57 who escaped made it through what is now known as “Tunnel 57”.

A civil engineering student in East Berlin named Joachim Neumann was able to sneak past border guards to West Berlin posing as a Swiss student in 1961. And while Neumann continued his studies in West Berlin, he also began to apply his learnings to the building of tunnels under the Wall.

Neumann’s first project was on a team building a tunnel in 1962, resulting in the successful escape of 29 people over two days, September 14 and 15. Neumann had a girlfriend in East Berlin, but was unable to inform her in time of the day of escape. But Tunnel 29, as it is now known, was Neumann’s realization that he would have other opportunities to bring his girlfriend to freedom.

Unfortunately, the next attempt to build a tunnel ended in calamity as the East German secret police uncovered the existence of the tunnel under progress. One of the people arrested was Neumann’s girlfriend, Christina, who was held for 8 months before being sentenced to two years in prison.

Joachim and Christina Neumann
Joachim and Christina Neumann

And Neumann continued to work on tunnel projects from the West Berlin side, including an excavation from April to October in 1964, the very one cited in the AP article above. Here is how the site, Berlin Wall Memorial, tells the rest of the story.

The escape operation was supposed to begin on October 3, 1964. But Joachim Neumann had to take an exam that day. When he returned to his apartment, he found a letter from his girlfriend. She wrote that she had been released early from prison and was back in Berlin. Joachim Neumann had to be at the opening to the tunnel in three hours and wasn’t able to find a courier on such short notice. He asked his friend to help and rushed to Bernauer Strasse. It was his job to greet the people escaping on the East Berlin side. It was quite late when his girlfriend appeared before him. She was one of 57 people who