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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.