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.

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


Tragedies in our lives often change our lives, for the better or for the worse.

Olympian great, Bob Schul, at the age of 22 figured his track career was done. His grandfather, whom he adored, had been killed in a car accident. Schul went back to school at Miami University of Ohio near his hometown of West Milton, but could not muster the energy to study and get passing grades, and ended up dropping out.

Schul decided it was time to grow up, so he joined the United States Air Force where he studied electronics. Based in Detroit, Michigan, where the lack of track competitions and cold weather gave little incentive for training, Schul wrote in his autobiography, In the Long Run, that “I figured my running career was finished before it had ever begun.”

But only a few months after his time in the cold at Selfridge Air Force Base, his heart warmed when he saw a notice on a bulletin board asking for applicants to a special Air Force track team that, if good enough, could go to the Olympics in Rome. Schul applied, and after anxious weeks of waiting, he got the word that he was in. It was off to sunny and warm California, where he would be based at Oxnard Air Force Base not far north of LA.

Mihaly Igloi

Mihaly Igloi, was a very good miler for Hungary, and was on the Hungarian team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. While not a champion miler, he eventually became an effective track coach for the Hungarian army track club, Honved Budapest. In the 1950s, Igloi’s runners were commonly breaking world records in various middle and long distance categories, and were heavily favored to break more records and win medals at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

But Igloi’s tragedy was a national tragedy. Over a decade prior to the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia and subsequent Soviet invasion in 1968, there was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a time when Hungarians revolted against their government and the Soviet puppet policies they lived under. Student protests led to police retaliation, which led to the forming of resistance militia across the country, which led to the Soviet leadership decision to crush the rebellion, which they did. On November 4, 1956, only 18 days prior to the start of the Melbourne Olympics, Soviet forces poured into Budapest. Over 2,500 Hungarians were killed, and over 200,000 fled their homeland.

Igloi and his track team were in Budapest, and saw the chaos of the Soviet invasion, but were fortunate to leave the country and arrive in Melbourne. Understandably, the Hungarians performed poorly at the Games. After the competition, Igloi, and one of his top runners, Laszlo Tabori, made the fateful decision to forgo their return to Hungary and defect to the United States.

Laszlo Tabori

With support from Sports Illustrated, Igloi and Tabori settled into life in the US, finding work in indoor track and meeting promoters, coaches and runners, according to this article in Runners World. Igloi eventually settled into a role as coach at San Joe State University in Northern California.

Max Truex, who finished sixth in the 10,000 meters race at the 1960 Rome Olympics, was in the Air Force. He had been trained by Igloi, who helped Truex to the best finish ever by an American in the 10K. And he happened to be Bob Schul’s commanding officer at Oxnard. Truex recommended that Schul get coached by Igloi. Truex arranged for temporary duty for Airman Schul in San Jose where Igloi was based at the time, so that Schul could train under Igloi in May, 1961.

And thus began a wonderful relationship, one that eventually resulted in Olympic gold.

Track & Field: US-Poland Meet: USA Max Truex in action, crossing finish line to win 5000M race vs Poland at 10th-Anniversary Stadium. Warsaw, Poland 7/30/1961 CREDIT: Neil Leifer (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: S441 )


Vera Caslavska was dominant at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. She won gold in the all arounds, the vault, asymmetric bars and the floor exercise. She also took silver in the beam and team event. When Caslavska was about to go up to receive her gold medal in the floor exercise, the famed Mexican Hat Dance performance, she learned quite abruptly that the floor exercise score of the Soviet Union’s Larisa Petrik was increased, resulting in a tie for gold.

When Caslavska and Petrik stood side by side, listening to the national anthem of the Soviet Union, Caslavska “stood with her head down and turned away in a silent but unmistakable protest.” The Mexico City Olympics were in October 1968. Earlier that year, Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretariat of the Communist Part of Czechoslovakia and began a series of reforms that allowed, most significantly, greater autonomy and freedom of speech. In June of that year, journalist, Ludvik Vaculik, published a paper entitled “The Two Thousand Words“, which was a manifesto protesting the increasingly hard-line elements in the government, and calling for increased reforms and openness. Caslavska, who was not one to shy away from controversy, signed the manifesto, along with hundreds of thousands of others.

Vera Caslavska turning her head down and away during the Soviet national anthem, with Soviet co-gold medalist Larisa Petrik standing alongside.

In August of 1968, Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, ordered 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks into Czechoslovakia to squash the so-called Prague Spring. As a result of the invasion, Caslavska lost access to her training facilities just weeks prior to the beginning of the Mexico City Olympics. Quite famously, Caslavska trained in the forests of Moravia, improvising with potato sacks for weights and logs for beams.

In other words, Caslavaska likely took the Soviet invasion personally. When she returned to Prague with her treasure trove of medals garnered in Mexico, she did not place them in her trophy case. Instead, Caslavska handed her four gold medals to the Czech leaders of the Prague Spring after they had been deposed by the Soviet Union. This act was not rewarded by the authorities, as Caslavaska immediately fell under a travel ban, and was denied coaching positions. As the obit in The Telegraph summed up, her international career was ended.

It took another six years before Caslavska was finally allowed to work as a gymnastics coach in Czechoslovakia. And when the wall in Berlin fell in 1989, those in power began to look upon Caslavska in a different light. The then new president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, hired Caslavska as an advisor. She was then elected president of the Czech Olympic Committee. UNESCO contributed to the Caslavska revival by recognizing her life’s work in gymnastics with the Pierre de Coubertin International Fair Play Trophy in 1989. Her government honored her with the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit in 1995. And in 1998, she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

When Vera Caslavska passed away on August 30, 2016, the world remembered a woman of beauty, a gymnast extraordinaire who blended athleticism and balletic grace, and an activist who did not shy from her convictions.