Great Running Performances: Emil Zatopek

Great Running Performances: Emil Zatotek

By Jim Israel

We are different, in essence, from other men. If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.

Men, today we die a little.

What has passed is already finished with. What I find more interesting is what is still to come.

….Emil Zatopek

There’s an ancient proverb that describes perfectly the life of Emil Zatopek:

“Character Is Fate.”

Every aspect of this extraordinary life is informed by monumental perseverance, grit, discipline and integrity.

His early days were certainly not a harbinger of the great deeds to follow. Born in Koprivinice, Czechoslovakia, one of six children in a working-class family, Zopotek at 16 began working in the Bata shoe factory in a neighboring town. In 1940, when he was eighteen, Bata sponsored a 1,500-meter race; Zatopek was persuaded to enter the run even though he had no interest at all in running, and had, in fact, done no training. Nevertheless, out of 250 runners, Zatotek came in second. A career was born.

Within four years, Zatotek had broken Czech records for 2,000-, 3,000- and 5,000-meter distances. His running style became as well-known as his burgeoning running prowess: he threw everything into his running and this was reflected in his agonizing facial expressions. ‘Gangly, inefficient and unattractive’ were often-heard descriptions. Zatpotek couldn’t have cared less:

I shall learn to have a better style when they start judging races according to their beauty. So long as it’s a question of speed, then my attention will directed to seeing how fast I can cover the ground.

He may have looked ‘unattractive,’ but no one approached the intensity and duration of his work regimen. He’d train in any weather, and endure incredibly punishing routines – he was said to have done 400 meter intervals up to EIGHTY times in one training session. He would often jog in place for hours, reading a book, and even run 2-mile intervals with his wife on his back.

The 1948 Olympics in London made Zatotek: the celebrity and renown of “The Czech Locomotive” was now known around the world. He won a gold in the 10,000 competition and came in second in the 5,000 meter race. Though he lost the 5,000, here’s a description by an English announcer of Mr. Zatotek’s sheer determination during his stretch run:

“Blimey, the blighter’s cracked! The guy [Zatotek] is taking off after the Swede! Look how he runs, like he’s just swallowed some lye and had a wad of steel wool dropped down his shorts! His head rolls from side t’ side like a clapper in the bell on a ship in vomitous seas. This Zatotek is cracked! But he’s catching the bugger! How’s that for guts? Make up more than 20 meters in a half-a-lap. Stupid, but a hell of an athlete!”

Zatotek became an immortal during the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. He won three gold medals at three distances: the 5,000-meter race, the 10,000-meter race and the marathon, in a span of eight days. This feat will never be accomplished again. He achieved the trinity even though a doctor two months before the Games told him not to compete because of an ongoing gland infection. Zatotek was not to be denied.

1952: 5,000-meters:

“Four runners all within a bobbing head of each other. The crowd is frantic, howling wildly. Then the howls coalesce. They are screaming, “Za-to-PEK! Za-to-PEK!

From somewhere deep within, the Czech Locomotive has summoned the courage of the angels!”

Emil Zatotek didn’t intend to run the marathon in Helsinki. He hadn’t trained for that distance, and was not prepared for it. But three days after the 10,000 win, he announced his intention to run in the 26-mile competition. He knew very little about marathon strategy. So, he followed a simple plan: he would stick near a top competitor. [“I didn’t want to follow a nobody.”] The strategy worked: Emil Zatotek was on Brit Jim Peters’ tail for 25 kilometers and then ran away from the pack. He had never run a marathon before, yet shattered the Olympic record by 6 minutes.

Let’s finally look quickly at his overall racing career: he set 18 world records over distances from 5K to 30K, won four gold medals and one silver; at one point, over a span of six years, the great Zatotek won 38 consecutive 10,000-meter races, including 11 in one year.

Emil Zatotek was one for the ages.