Emil Zatopek (born 1922), a Czech runner, was the first and only man ever to win the "triple crown" of the 5,000-and 10,000-meter races as well as the marathon in a single Olympics. He is considered to be one of the creators of interval training, a method that is still used by athletes today.
Emil Zatopek was born on October 19, 1922, in Koprinivince, Czechoslovakia. His father was a carpenter who raised eight children. Zatopek began running at the age of 16, when he was working in the Buta shoe factory. In 1941, the shoe factory sponsored a race through the streets of the town of Zlin. Zatopek had never competed before and did not want to run in the race, but was forced to by his employer. As Richard Benyo noted in The Masters of the Marathon, "He finished second, probably motivated more by the desire to get it over with than the wish to shine in the event."
Zatopek ran a few more races in the next year, but was not passionately interested in running. However, coaches and trainers marked him as a talented young runner. In his first official race, a 3,000-meter run, he came in second only to his trainer. A newspaper reported, "A good performance by Zatopek." He read that line over and over; it was the seed of all his future ambitions in running. When Russia invaded Czechoslovakia during World War II, he joined the army. Instead of running on roads, he ran in his army boots during his guard duty, training every day regardless of weather, and using a flashlight to run in the dark if necessary.
In 1952, the Olympic Games were scheduled to be held in Helsinki, Finland. They were the subject of a great deal of speculation because athletes from the Soviet Union and its satellite countries would be participating for the first time since 1917. It was the time of the Cold War, and tension between the Communist governments and the United States was high. The countries diverted their mutual competition into the Games. At the Olympics, however, athletes from behind the Iron Curtain and those from the West coexisted peacefully, inviting each other into their quarters and competing with honor.
Zatopek was the star of the track events that year. At the previous Olympics held in London in 1948, he had won a gold medal in the 10,000-meter race and a silver medal in the 5,000. In Helsinki, Zatopek won the 10,000 meters with ease, setting a new Olympic world record by almost 43 seconds. In the 5,000, he was trailing until the final turn, where he sprinted and won by a little less than a second, setting another Olympic record.
Zatopek's wife, Dana Zatopkova, was also an athlete. After he won his second gold, he loaned the medal to her just before she began competing in the javelin throw. She put it in her bag for good luck, and with her first throw, set a new Olympic record and won the event.
Zatopek had never won a marathon before, but buoyed by his two wins, announced that he would compete in the Olympic marathon, three days after the 5,000-meter race.
He was not a graceful runner, and was famous for his horrifying style. Newspapers called him "The Beast of Prague," "The Czech Express," and "The Human Locomotive, " because of his distorted appearance while running. As Charlie Lovett wrote in Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History of the Games' Most Storied Race, "Each step for the Czech runner looked as though it might be his last. His face was constantly contorted as if in terrible pain, his head rolled wildly, and his arms were held high, as if to clutch at his heart. Anyone who watched Zatopek run for a few steps would assume he was on the point of collapse. And, anyone who had run a marathon knew that such a style wasted valuable energy and was not likely to lead to completion of the race, much less victory. Zatopek, however, was not a runner who dealt in likelihoods."
Benyo wrote, "His style has been described as similar to a man just stabbed in the heart, his head would roll back as though his eyes were attempting to see over the top of his head, his tongue would loll out of his mouth, and an expression of pain would cross his face as though he were about to drop to the ground from a mortal wound. His arm movements were spastic, one would drop so low that it appeared as though he were trying to scratch his knee. Each step appeared to be torture." Despite his unusual style, he was known for his good humor, enthusiasm, and love of running; Benyo described him as "charming, warm, intelligent, guileless and totally unaffected by his fame as well as undaunted by his frequent turns of fortune."
Zatopek was well-known as one of the inventors of a system of training called "interval training," which is still used by athletes. In this system, a runner covers a short distance very quickly, then rests while running more slowly, then runs the distance again, rests again, runs again, and so on. This training builds speed and endurance, unlike running long distances at a steady pace, which builds only endurance. It was his interval training that made him feel he would be able to compete in the marathon; he would be the first runner ever to attempt to win the 5,000, 10,000, and marathon in a single Olympics.
At the marathon, Jim Peters of Great Britain, who held the world record with a time of 2:20:42, was expected to win. Zatopek had never run a marathon before and didn't know much about pacing in the race, so he decided it would be simplest to stay close to Peters throughout the race. Before the race, he introduced himself to Peters. Peters knew Zatopek well, since at the 1948 Games in London, Peters had lost the 10,000 by such a great distance that he was still on his last lap of the track when Zatopek passed him on the victory lap. Peters had not forgotten this embarrassment, which at the time had caused him to temporarily retire.
Peters was out in front at the beginning of the race, with Zatopek not far behind. Peters, like Zatopek, trained with speed, and almost immediately was 100 yards ahead of everyone else. Zatopek was intimidated by Peters's speed, but doggedly kept Peters in sight. At the halfway point he asked Peters, in English, if the pace was too fast. Reports differ on Peters's answer; some say that he joked that in fact it was too slow, and others say he said it was just right. Zatopek asked again, and Peters, apparently annoyed and not wanting to talk, moved to the other side of the road. According to Lovett, Zatopek later said, "It is a sign of dis-harmony, of losing too much energy when someone gets nervous like that. I said to myself, [the pace] must not be right."
He was correct. Peters soon tired and began to slow. Zatopek and Swedish runner Gustaf Jansson continued on at a fast pace. British runner Stan Cox collapsed at the halfway point and was taken away in an ambulance. At the 20-mile mark, Peters also dropped out and was taken back to the stadium in an ambulance so he could watch the finish. In the last few miles, Zatopek pulled ahead of Jansson, and entered the stadium and his final lap to the roar of a huge crowd chanting his name. Not only had he won an amazing triple victory—the only man ever to pull off such a feat— but he had also set a new Olympic Marathon record in his first try at the 26.2 mile distance. He had beat the record by more than six minutes, an amazing feat.
By the time the second runner crossed the finish line, Zatopek had already greeted his wife, changed his clothes, and was halfway through eating an apple. Despite this gap, Zatopek had set such a fast pace that all six top finishers beat the previous Olympic record. After that day, he was so exhausted that he could hardly walk for a week. However, he was already looking forward to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
In Australia, Zatopek did not even compete in the 5,000 or the 10,000. He concentrated on the marathon. By now he was 34, considered somewhat old for an Olympic runner. He had trained hard, sometimes even running with his wife on his shoulders. The extra weight gave him a hernia. Doctors performed surgery on him and advised him not to enter the marathon. But he entered anyway.
Perhaps because of his poor health, Zatopek came in sixth in the event. The first-place finisher, French-Algerian Alain Mimoun O'Kacha, cheered him as he neared the finish and gave him a warm embrace, saying later that Zatopek's hug was better than the gold medal.
Zatopek competed a few more times in shorter races, but then retired from competition. Despite the fact that he only ran the marathon twice and only won once, he is still considered one of the great long-distance runners. Because Zatopek's running successes had brought favorable attention to Czechoslovakia, he was promoted in the Czech army. Although he was a Communist, he was against the government that had been set up during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, believing that it was merely a front for Soviet rule. In 1968, Zatopek and his wife were involved in a peaceful revolution that overthrew Soviet rule, and like many other educated Czechs, they signed a defiant statement against the Soviets, called the Manifesto of 2,000 Words. That summer, the Russians sent tanks to Czechoslovakia to stop the rebellion. Zatopek told an officer that this was unjust. When it was discovered that he had signed the manifesto, he was stripped of his army rank and thrown out of the Communist Party.
Because he was in trouble with the government, it was hard for him to find a job. Eventually he found work with a geological survey team in a rural area. He was often away from his wife for two weeks at a time, digging and carrying bags of concrete. In 1971, he was pressured by sports officials and secret police to sign a statement that he supported the government, but his situation did not change until some time later, when he was allowed to travel to a few international sports events. When he returned home after these events, however, he was sent back to his hard labor.
In 1975, the government gave him a job with the Ministry of Sport. This involved reading sports journals from all over the world and reporting back about other countries' coaching methods, so that Communist athletes could know what the enemy was doing and potentially beat athletes from other countries. In 1990, the Communist government finally fell. Zatopek reenlisted in the army. The new government apologized for his dismissal more than two decades before. He and his wife still live in the Czech Republic.
Benyo, Richard, Masters of the Marathon, Atheneum, 1983.
Lovett, Charlie, Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History of the Games' Most Storied Race, Praeger, 1997.
Sandrock, Michael, Running with the Legends, Human Kinetics, 1996.