Emil Zatopek was a Czechoslovak athlete who won three gold medals in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics (5,000m, 10,000m and marathon). He was noted for his relentless training regime which involved a pioneering use of interval training. A hero in his native Czechoslovakia he was in influential member in the Communist Party, however he was expelled for supporting the democratic movement of 1968 and as a consequence was forced to work in dangerous mining jobs. He was rehabilitated in 1990 by Czech President Václav Havel. Zatopek is considered one of the greatest athletes and sporting personalities of the Twentieth Century.
“Great is the victory, but the friendship is all the greater.”
– Emil Zatopek
Emil Zatopek was born in Czechoslovakia in 1922. At the age of 16 he went to work in a factory. At the time he had no interest in running but on one occasion was picked to join a race. Despite his protestations that he was unfit, he was forced to start the race and ended up coming second out of 100. This began his interest in running, and within four years he was representing Czechoslovakia. The second world war and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia meant he lost the best years of his career, but in 1948, he became a household name winning the 10 km in the austerity London Olympics. He also finished second in the 5 km.
On 29 September 1951, Emil Zatopek became the first person to run 20 kilometres in under one hour and broke four world records in one breathtaking race. By the end of 1953 he held eight world running records—the only man in history to hold so many records at the same time. In total he set 18 world records.
1952 Helsinki Olympics
In 1952, Emil Zatopek achieved one of the greatest Olympic feats of all time – something that will probably never be reproduced. He won gold in the 5km, 10km and then at the last moment decided to run his first ever marathon. Despite no previous experience at the distance he won the race by over 2 minutes. This triple gold remains an unprecedented achievement. The amazing feature of this Olympics was that two months before the Olympics, doctors advised him not to race because of an infected gland. Zatopek ignored the doctors’ advice.
Emil Zatopek Running Style
Emil Zatopek threw everything into his running and this was reflected in his agonising facial expressions. His running style was often criticised for being gangly, inefficient and unattractive, but Zatopek retorted you don’t win any prizes for looks in a running race. He ignored his critics and retained his unique style throughout his career.
“I shall learn to have a better style once they start judging races according to their beauty. So long as it’s a question of speed, then my attention will be directed to seeing how fast I can cover the ground.”
Emil Zatopek’s Training
Emile Zatopek was renowned for his hard training routines. He would train whatever the weather and push himself through punishing training routines to get the best out of himself. He is said to have done 400 metre intervals up to 80 times in one training session. In many ways, Zatopek was a great pioneer of interval training. His philosophy was to develop speed and then be able to repeat this over a long period of time. Speaking of his intense training Zatopek said:
“If one can stick to the training throughout the many long years, then will power is no longer a problem. It’s raining? That doesn’t matter. I am tired? That’s beside the point. It’s simply that I just have to.”
Zatopek was a pioneer in the use of ‘interval training’ – making short, hard intense efforts. At the time, this challenged conventional training wisdom. Zatopek remarked on the issue of interval training.
Emil Zatopek on Interval Training, “Everyone said, ‘Emil, you are a fool!’
But when I first won the European Championship, they said: ‘Emil, you are a genius!’”
Emily Zatopek Principles
Emil Zatopek is considered to be a great Czech hero. He was also an important member of the Czech Communist party. But, he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Before the Helsinki games in 1952, Zatopek protested at the exclusion of fellow athlete, Stains Jungwirth because his father was a political prisoner. Initially the Communist party refused to let either Jungwirth or Zatopek go the games. But, eventually they caved in and allowed both to go. It was an achievement that very few people other than Zatopek could have pulled off.
In the Prague spring of 1968, Zatopek spoke out for the democratic wing who were calling for greater change and freedom from the Kremlin. Zatopek had tremendous loyalty for Alexander Dubcek, the leader of the democratic wing and opposed the Russian invasion. When the revolution failed, Zatopek was punished by being removed as colonel in the army and was sent to work in an uranium mine – a fate he accepted for his willingness to speak out against the authorities.
As well as being a great runner, Emil was legendary for his generous heart and good nature. The great Australian runner Ron Clarke had achieved many spectacular achievement in athletics, but, an Olympic gold had always eluded him. When Ron Clarke went to visit Zatopek, Zatopek accompanied him to the airport. At the last moment, Zatopek thrust something into his hand. Clarke thought it might be some secret document, but, when he got on the plane he was shocked to see an Olympic gold medal with a note from Zatopek saying simply ‘Because you deserve it’. Clarke said
“I do know no-one cherishes any gift more than I do, my only Olympic gold medal, and not because of what it is, but because of the man whose spirit it represents”.
Zatopek had tremendous sincerity. He recounts arriving at the 1948 Olympics in London:
“It was my first competition in Olympic Games and I was surprised to come to Olympic stadium and to read the most important things about the Games was: ‘Not to win but to take part’. What—not to win? Ah, but I wish to win! “
Zatopek also remarked on how significant the 1948 Olympics were:
“For me, the 1948 Olympics was a liberation of the spirit. After all those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing, the starvation, the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out. I went into the Olympic Village in 1948 and suddenly there were no more frontiers, no more barriers. Just the people meeting together. It was wonderfully warm. Men and women who had lost five years of life were back again.”
He was married to Zana they were born on the same day: September 19, 1922 only 6 hours separated their birth and they remained close throughout their lives. Zana was also a great athlete in her own right winning a gold in the javelin in 1952
Zatopek passed away aged 78 in Prague, 2000. He had lived to see the overthrow of the repressive Communist regime and left a profound legacy of athletic achievement.