“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.

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 (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

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.

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.