Starck four piece medal Paris 2024 1

When Emil Zátopek, the Czech distance runner gave away one of his gold medals, he still had three other gold medals and a silver. Australian distance runner, Ron Clarke, a perennial gold-medalist-to-be, had to settle for a gold medal gifted to him, albeit from arguably the greatest distance runner ever.

Zátopek was not one for airs, and may have given all of his medals away if asked. But most Olympians would never part from their hard-won treasure.

And yet, when Olympians win medals at the Paris Olympics, they may have that opportunity.

The Paris Olympic Organizing Committee asked designer, Philippe Starck, to create the medals. Starck, who also designed the relay torch for the 1992 Albertville Winter Games, developed a medal that can be shared, literally. As you can see in the photos and the video, the medal is thicker than the traditional Olympic medal as three sections can be removed from it, each section a medal in its own right.

Starck four piece medal Paris 2024 2

Presumably, the Olympian can keep the entire medal as is, or give the sections away, presumably to family members, strong supporters, sponsors, or close friends. The New York Times recently noted that this could be the way that coaches are finally recognized for their contributions to a victorious Olympian’s achievements as they do not receive medals.

“Today, more than ever, the truth is that you’re not winning alone, so I wanted this medal to reflect that,” said Starck. “If the winner wants to share it, they can share it.”

So at the Paris Olympics, most likely in the summer of 2024, Olympians can share their triumph in a way that is truly unique.

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Jules Noel

he great long-distance runner, Emil Zátopek, drank a glass of beer after his tough training every day.

The first ever winner of the marathon, Spyridon Louis, was said to have made a pit stop at his uncle’s tavern for a glass of wine before winning gold at the 1896 Athens Olympics.

But discus thrower, Jules Noël, was a beneficiary of the US government’s decision to suspend the importation and imbibing of alcohol.

From 1920 to 1933, it was illegal to produce, import, transport and sell alcoholic beverages. This teetotaler era in the United States, known as Prohibition, happened to be in force during the 1932 Olympics hosted in Los Angeles, California.   But according to David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky in their book, The Book of Olympic Lists, “in the interests of international goodwill the US government suspended its prohibition against alcoholic beverages to allow French, Italian and other athletes to import and drink wine.”

Anti prohibition protest in New York City
Anti Prohibition Protest in New York City in 1932.

Frenchman, Noël, believed that “wine was an essential part of his diet,” according to sports-reference.com. Apparently, the world record holder and eventual gold medalist in the discus throw, John Anderson, led nearly the entire competition. But in the fourth and final round, after Anderson’s leading throw of 49.49 meters, Noël was reported to send a discus way past Andersen’s best throw at the time. But apparently, “the officials were watching the pole vault and did not see it land. Noël was given an extra throw but could not produce his top throw again and he would eventually place fourth.”

Before his mighty but unofficial throw, Noël was said to be “swigging champagne with his compatriots in the locker room between rounds at the discus event.”

True?

In vino veritas!

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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.”

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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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While legendary Emil Zatopek leads the pack in the 10,000 meter race at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Frank Sando, with only a sock on his left foot, ended up fifth.

 

It was 1952, at the Helsinki Olympics, there was no brighter star than Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. But sharing a part of the shade under the towering figure of Zatopek was a Brit named Frank Sando. Somewhere early in the 10,000-meter race (at the end of the first or third lap depending on which report you read), Sando was spiked by a trailing runner and lost his left shoe. Sando kept running.

In fact, Sando ran nearly the entire 29-minute race, with bare left foot. And he incredibly came in fifth, running steadily in one of the more grueling of Olympic competitions, breaking the British record and coming within 3.6 seconds of a bronze medal.

It was 1960 when a man from Ethiopia topped that feat (as it were). Abebe Bikila became the first black African to win a gold medal, winning the marathon in Olympic record time….shoeless.

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Abebe Bikila winning gold in the marathon in Rome in 1960.

There have been many other cases of runners losing a shoe in a race, but usually the loss of the shoe impacts the performance of the runner negatively. When someone prepares hundreds of hours for a particular running competition, it is with the understanding that the shoes will hold up. There is no training without shoes. And when an athlete is suddenly without a shoe, it will be painful. The soft skin of the bottom of the foot will peel away. The tendons and muscles that support the ankles and calfs and hamstrings will feel the effects of a suddenly altered running style, one instinctively designed to avoid pain.

But there are also people who, today, run barefoot regularly, who believe that un-shod approach is the natural way to ambulate, and better for a body that did not evolve over the millenia with Nike’s or Adidas shoes on foot. (See Barefoot Runners Society.) Barefoot runners not only enjoy barefoot running, they believe it improves their overall foot and leg condition and diminishes arthritic pain.

According to this siteAccording to this site, these are the potential benefits if you take up barefoot running regularly:

  • May strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the foot and allow one to develop a more natural gait.
  • By removing the heel lift in most shoes, it will help stretch and strengthen the Achilles tendon and calf muscle which may reduce injuries, such as calf strains or Achilles tendinitis.
  • Runners will learn to land on the forefoot rather than the heel. The heel strike during running was developed due to the excessive padding of running shoes, but research shows this isn’t the most effective natural running stride. Landing on the heel causes unnecessary braking on every stride. The most efficient runners land on the mid-foot and keep their strides smooth and fluid. Landing on the forefoot also allows your arches to act as natural shock absorbers.
  • It may improve balance and proprioception. Going barefoot activates the smaller muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and hips that are responsible for better balance and coordination.
  • Running barefoot helps one improve balance, but it also helps them stay grounded and connected with your environment. A person can learn to spread their toes and expand the foot while it becomes a more solid and connected base that supports all movements.

And for the competitor, there is a potential benefit regarding increased speed, perhaps one of the more important factors for a competitive runner. According to this article in Runner’s World, research has shown that the simple matter of reducing the weight your feet and legs have to carry can have a significant impact on your running speed. This article quotes long-distance runner, Bruce Tulloh, who cites the research of Dr Griffith Pugh. Dr Pugh’s huge claim to fame was to be the doctor to the team that first climbed Mt Everest.

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The South African long-distance runner, Zola Budd, who ran barefoot under the British flag in the 3,000-meter race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

“Dr. Pugh had me run repetition miles, to compare the effect of bare feet, shoes, and shoes with added weight. He collected breath samples. It showed a straight-line relationship between weight of shoes and oxygen cost. At sub-5:00 mile pace, the gain in efficiency with bare feet is 1 percent, which means a 100m advantage in a 10,000m. In actual racing, I found another advantage is that you can accelerate more quickly,” Tulloh said.

But if you’re not dealing with pain in your feet or legs, and you have never trained in barefoot, there is no real great advantage to start doing so. When you first run barefoot, as most of us can clearly imagine, it will hurt. The bottom of your feet will be chocked by the impact, particularly the moment you step on a pebble, a thorn, or a piece of glass. In addition to punctures and lacerations, the chance of achilles tendonitis, calf strain and plantar fasciitis are high. Then there’s the frostbite if you run in the cold….

My intent is not to pull your leg, or put my foot down on the merits of running unshod. If you have itchy feet and yearn to feel the dirt and grass as it caresses and cushions your overly protected puppies, then perhaps it’s time to stop dragging your feet. Go ahead, dig in your heels and put your best foot forward.

To Tell the Truth Harold and Olga Connolly
Click on the image to watch this episode of To Tell the Truth.
They were two of the most famous people in Czechoslovakia in 1958 – one American and one Czech. But in America, while those in Athletics were well aware of Harold and Olga Connolly, the mass market was not. That likely changed when they appeared on the very popular American game show, “To Tell the Truth”, on June 10, 1958.

The objective of “To Tell the Truth” is to have four celebrity panelists identify the “real” person out of three, by asking questions. In this case, Olga appeared at the opening program alongside two others who claimed to be Olga. They all spoke with an Eastern European accent and they all had the letters CS on the sweat shirt they were wearing. The program started with an “affidavit” from the actual person. Here is how Olga of Prague, and Harold of Boston were introduced by the host of To Tell the Truth, Bud Collyer.

I, Olga Fikotová Connolly, am a Czechoslovakian athlete. A week before the start of the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, I met an American athlete, Harold Connolly. Our friendship continued throughout the course of the Games. Both of us set new Olympic records in our events. I won the gold in the women’s discus throw for Czechoslovakia, and Harold won first place in the hammer throw for the United States. Three months after the Games, Harold Connolly came to Prague and asked me to marry him. The authorities hesitated to grant permission until I made a personal appeal to the president of Czechoslovakia. We were married in Prague on March 27, 1957. 20,0000 people came to the wedding. We are now living in this country. Harold is teaching school and I am continuing my studies. Both of us are still actively engaged in active competitions. Signed Olga Fikotová Connolly.

The panelists consisted of known celebrities of the time: actress Betty White, actor Jackie Cooper, singer/actress Kitty Carlisle, and entertainment reporter, Hy Gardner. In the first segment of the show with Olga, some of the questions were probing and some were silly and entertaining.

To Tell the Truth Panel for Connolly's
Betty White, Jackie Cooper, Kitty Carlisle and Hy Garland
Kitty Carlisle asked #1 (the real Olga): What is the biggest shoe manufacturer in Czechoslovakia? Olga replied, truthfully I presume, “Batta” (although her pronunciation was more like “Battia”). Carlisle also asked a question that Olga had trouble with, and to be honest so did I because she used an American idiom I was unaware of.

Carlisle: When you want to be a clinging vine and you want to tell your husband, um, something like “the vacuum cleaner is too heavy to pick up”, or “I can’t lift the bag,” what does he say? “If you can’t lift it, throw it?”

Connolly: “What does the vine have to be? I didn’t understand what I have to be.”

Carlisle: “When you say this is too heavy to lift,” will your husband help you with it?

You can see she’s nervous at first because she doesn’t understand the idiom, but she doesn’t shy away and quickly recovers with a sly smile and reply.

Connolly: “Oh yes, I say ‘Oh’, and my husband picks it up.”

After the panelist question round ended, Jackie Cooper and Kitty Carlisle correctly selected participant #1, the real Olga Connolly. And in a twist, after Olga Connolly and her

Emil Zatopek wins gold at the 1952 Helsinki marathon.
Emil Zatopek wins gold at the 1952 Helsinki marathon.

I recently ran in a 5,000 meter race, the first time I had competed in any official competition. It was for charity, so all I wanted to do was finish. I ran about 5k on my weekend runs, so I was confident I could complete the race. There were others who ran the 5k after just running the 10k race, which blew my mind.

Today, world-class athletes will rarely compete in multiple long-distance runs as the strategy and mindset differ from distance to distance, in addition to the general punishment on the body. However, not only did legendary runner, Emil Zátopek win the 5,000-meter race and the 10,000-meter race in Helsinki in 1952, he triumphed in the 42-kilometer marathon. The legend from Czechoslovakia won the three longest of the long-distance Olympic races and Emil Zátopekset the world record in each competition, all within one week. And his time record-setting time in the marathon of 2 hours, 23 minutes and 2 seconds was accomplished in the very first marathon he had ever run.

As discus thrower, Olga Connolly (nee Fitkotova), related in her autobiography, “The Rings of Destiny”, Emil Zátopek was the most sought-after star in the 1956 Games in Melbourne, where Connolly won gold. “Not only every athlete wanted to shake his hand, but every coach wanted to learn from Zátopek, every reporter wanted to interview him and every photographer wanted an ‘unusual’ or ‘intimate’ picture. At first the crowds of invaders searched for him in the dining room, later they sought his living quarters. Soon he found people walking freely in and out; eventually he developed the reflex of leaping into a broom closet each time he heard unfamiliar steps in the corridor. Zátopek complained that perhaps no other machinery was more effective in destroying the chances of a champion than excessive publicity.”

The Connolly's and the Zatopek's
The Connolly’s and the Zatopek’s

As it turns out, Zátopek did not medal at the Melbourne Games.

While the media wanted to know the secrets to Zátopek’s success, he revealed them to his friend, Connolly. “Before we settled to dinner, Emil ceremoniously unwrapped two bottles of Pilsner Urquell, the best Czechoslovakian beer, and divided the contents among my glass, his and Dana’s (his wife).”

“‘Emil, this is quite a celebration,’ I said. ‘You can’t have much beer left.’ I knew how jealously he protected the small case of beer he carried all the way from Prague. He sighed, ‘Well, it goes fast. Everybody is after me for a glassful, so I’ll soon have to manage without the ‘elixir.’ Zátopek was accustomed to drinking a glass of beer a day and claimed it helped to replenish body fluids lost in his daily twenty miles of running.”

“‘Medicinal beer drinking’ was one of the few topics on which Emil enjoyed anyone agreeing with him. In most other instances he preferred being opposed – always ready to engage in polemics, he was a master of aggravating arguments. Behind Zátopek’s receding forehead lay extraordinary mental faculties. He could recall minute facts from conversations he had held years before, and in several weeks abroad he could master the basics of any language. Years later, if he met his foreign friends again, he astonished them with his handling of Finnish or Urdu.”

It’s worth watching the above video to get to the last line of the narrator: “Here’s one Czech that will always be honored.”