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The greatest long-distance runner of the mid-20th century: Emil Zátopek

He was the greatest long-distance runner of the mid-20th century, but when he ran Emil Zátopek looked ridiculous. His face was a mask of pain and his head lolled to the side, as though his neck couldn’t hold it up. The American sportswriter Red Smith said he ‘ran like a man with a noose around his neck, the most frightful horror spectacle since Frankenstein, on the verge of strangulation’. His arms flailed, another journalist wrote, as if he was ‘wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt’. Below the waist his movement was efficient and graceful, but Zátopek knew he lacked what sports commentators call ‘style’. ‘I am not talented enough to run and smile at the same time,’ he once said. On the track he suffered, and he was loved because he showed it.

Emil Zátopek 
By modern standards some of his achievements seem modest. He was the first person to run 10,000 metres in under 29 minutes, but runners are now getting close to 26 minutes. He would not have qualified for the 10,000 metres event in the 2016 Olympics, and his marathon times are now matched by those of strong amateurs. The range of his abilities, however, remains unequalled. He was 174.3 cm tall and weighed 68 kg. He had long legs, but his left was slightly thinner than his right. His resting heart rate was measured, on different occasions, at 68 and 56 bpm. Both rates are high for a runner, though it was noted that he was able to recover quickly after exercise. He had an odd diet, fuelling himself before races with beer, cheese, sausages and bread. He drank strange concoctions that he thought would improve his performance: the juice from jars of pickles; a mixture of lemon juice (for vitamin C) and chalk (he thought the calcium would protect his teeth). He ate the leaves of young birch trees because he had noticed that deer did so. Deer run quickly, he reasoned, so he might too. He experimented with eating dandelions, as well as ‘vast quantities of garlic’, and when people asked him why he told them: ‘The hare runs through the woods, eats what he finds – and he’s fine.’ He spoke at least eight languages, which he taught himself by reading dictionaries. ‘Learn enough words,’ he said, ‘and the grammar looks after itself.’ During long runs he used to chat to his competitors, which some took for friendliness, others arrogance.
Both Richard Askwith and Rick Broadbent have gone through the archives and spoken to those who knew Zátopek – particularly his wife, Dana, an Olympic gold-medal-winning javelin thrower – in order to tell his story in unprecedented detail. Zátopek was born in 1922 and grew up in Kopřivnice in what was then Moravia in Czechoslovakia, and is now part of the Czech Republic. His father, who worked as a carpenter in a car factory, used to beat his children with a belt until Emil’s mother took it away and burned it. After that he beat them with a ruler. As a child Zátopek shunned sport, having been discouraged by his father, who felt that it was a waste of time and shoe leather, and that spare energy would be better spent working on the family’s smallholding. His parents’ indifference continued long after Zátopek became successful. When he first broke the Czech national record for 2000 metres in 1944, his father wrote to him: ‘We are worried about your health, and so we have decided that you will stop it. It is time to hang up your running shoes.’ Emil ignored him.
When he was 14 he moved to Zlín, an industrial city in the south of the country that was dominated by the Bata shoe factory. He enrolled at the school of work, and later found a job as a chemist at the factory. It was here that he ran his first proper race – a fun run organised by his boss, who wanted to win bragging rights over the other managers. Zátopek tried to get out of it claiming he’d injured his knee, but was forced to compete after a doctor gave him the all-clear. He came second. ‘I felt something then that I had wanted since childhood,’ he recalled. He began to train with a local club.
In 1938, Germany annexed Zátopek’s home town under the terms of the Munich Agreement. Six months later, when war broke out and the Nazis invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, Bata became a supplier for the Wehrmacht and Zlín was heavily bombed by the allies (on one occasion, bombs landed on the running track while Zátopek was training: he hid in the stands). When the Soviets liberated Zlín at the end of the war, Zátopek – like many others – welcomed them with open arms and helped to dig defensive trenches. After peace was declared he signed up to join the newly reformed Czechoslovakian army. He had decided he wanted to run, and thought he would get time to train and better food than ordinary civilians.

It was during his time in the army that Zátopek developed his unorthodox training regime. Long-distance running is a game of endurance. After running for more than about two minutes at full speed, most runners will hit their ‘aerobic threshold’: the point at which the lungs stop being able to supply enough oxygen to the muscles. Anaerobic respiration takes over and the body starts producing lactic acid – in addition to water and carbon dioxide – which accumulates painfully in the muscles. The key to running a marathon quickly is to stay below your aerobic threshold for as long as possible. Broadbent points out that it is the ability to run fast, but not too fast, for sustained periods of time that sets long-distance runners apart from animals.
The prevailing wisdom in Zátopek’s time was that runners shouldn’t wear themselves out by boosting their cardiovascular capacity in training, but instead train at less than full capacity so as to save something for the competition. Zátopek thought the opposite: that the harder you trained the easier a race would become. His regime became legendary. He trained in the forests, running through deep snow in heavy army boots, adopting a lolloping gait to avoid getting stuck in snowdrifts. Sometimes he trained carrying Dana on his back, or by running on the spot in his bath on a pile of wet clothes.
He would also do punishing turns round the track, and kept meticulous notes of his times and distances. Zátopek didn’t invent interval training – alternating between high and low-intensity workouts during a single training session (the Finnish champion Paavo Nurmi had been using fartlek, or ‘speed play’, in his own race preparation for years) – but he did more of it than any runner before him. Instead of running hard for a period and then jogging or walking to recover, he would push himself to his limit then slow back down to racing speed while he caught his breath. ‘Previously,’ Askwith writes, ‘athletes had faced a choice between the “Long Slow Distance” method, which developed stamina … and speed-focused interval training, usually for middle-distance runners.’ Emil used both. His methods were influential, but many thought he was damaging himself. Fred Wilt, an American runner who was also an FBI agent, described Zátopek’s method in How They Train (1959), concluding: ‘Before Zátopek, nobody had realised it was humanly possible to train this hard.’
The training paid off, and Zátopek’s achievements on the track in those early postwar years were astounding. He began to break national, then international records in his chosen distances – between 1000 metres and 10,000 metres – almost weekly. As an amateur, he had to fit these races around his normal working day. Immediately after graduating from the military academy he went home to visit his parents. He was due to compete in a race in Brno the next day, but his parents were still suspicious of his athletic aspirations. ‘He made his escape,’ Askwith writes:
by announcing that he wanted to take some of his father’s honey to his ‘aunt’ (presumably his sister) in Brno, promising to return straight away. But one thing led to another. Having delivered the honey – and set a Czechoslovak record for 3000 metres – he was immediately invited to Bratislava, where he set a record for 2000 metres three days later; and while he was there he was informed that arrangements had been made for him to fly to Paris to compete at 5000 metres at the World Student Games (for which his time at military academy qualified him). So off to France he flew – and while waiting for his event there he entered and won the 1500 metres as well.
He came to the world’s attention during the 1948 Olympics, which were held in London and billed as the ‘austerity’ games. Buildings were repurposed to house the athletes, and the running races were held on an old greyhound track at Wembley that had been covered with 80,000 tonnes of cinders. Athletes were entitled to an increased food ration of 5467 calories a day – the same as coal miners, and more than twice the general allowance. The Olympics were sponsored by Craven A cigarettes, and British competitors were treated to ‘a few hundred pairs of free Y-fronts’ from another sponsor. They were the first games to be televised: the BBC paid £1000 for the rights. ‘It was a liberation of spirit to be there in London,’ Zátopek said later: ‘After those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing and the starvation, the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out. Suddenly, there were no frontiers, no more barriers, just people meeting together.’
In London Zátopek decided to compete in the 5000 metres and 10,000 metres. In the final of the 10,000 metres he ran at a pace that he’d calculated would be sufficient to win gold – a record-breaking 71 seconds per lap. He asked his wife to wave a pair of white shorts or a red vest from the stands to signal whether he needed to stay at the same pace or speed up. In the first few laps he fell behind and feared Dana had forgotten his code, but then the vest went up and he put on a burst of speed. From that point on he dominated the field, finding time to smile and chat to his fellow runners, and lapping several of them too. He finished the race with a time of 29:59.6, a new Olympic record. Things didn’t go so well in the 5000 metres – Zátopek paced himself badly, and his final spurt of speed came too late – but he managed to win silver, and when he took off his shoes at the end of the race someone stole them as a memento.
The sporting feat for which he is best remembered took place four years later, in 1952. He was 29 at the time of the Helsinki Games, which Askwith claims were ‘perhaps the most politicised in Olympic history’. Soviet and Western athletes were housed in separate Olympic villages, but Western runners sought out Zátopek and asked for training tips. Zátopek obliged them. The night before one of his biggest races he gave up his bed to a visiting Australian who needed somewhere to sleep, and he gave a spare pair of socks to his English rival, Gordon Pirie.
At Helsinki Zátopek won his first race – the 10,000 metres – in style, sticking mechanically to his 70-second laps until no one else could keep up with him. He finished with a time of 29:17. The race was blisteringly fast: six other runners finished in under thirty minutes, and 16 ran times that would have won them silver in London. The 5000 metres Zátopek won easily (Dana was competing in the javelin final at the same time, so couldn’t signal to him). But the race that was to immortalise him as the greatest runner of the century was still to come.
Before the games, he’d said he aimed to win two gold medals, but he’d been ill and decided to sign up for the marathon as insurance against losing one of the shorter races. Sixty-five runners competed, including the English runner Jim Peters, who was one of the favourites, the Swede Gustaf Jansson, and Muhammad Aslam, a Pakistani runner who raced barefoot. Aslam led the race for a few laps, but once the race had left the stadium the runners began to spread out. Zátopek was in a group with Jansson and Stan Cox. Peters was ahead. Zátopek began to grimace. He rolled up his top to cool down. Gradually his group caught up with Peters. ‘The pace, Jim, is it too fast?’ Emil asked, to which Peters replied, irritated: ‘No, it has to be like this. Actually, it’s too slow.’ Then Peters moved to the side of the road and gave up. Zátopek upped his speed and won with a time of 2:23.03. His nearest rival was two minutes behind him. Though his time seems modest by modern standards – the Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge won the marathon in Rio with a time of 2:08.44 – the achievement was extraordinary. It was one of the fastest marathons ever run. The first 15 runners who finished all ran personal bests, and nine of them beat the old Olympic record. Every finisher had a time under three hours for the first time in Olympic history. But it was the cumulative nature of Zátopek’s achievement that was truly astounding. No one has won gold in all three races since then. ‘If you want to enjoy something,’ Zátopek said after the race, ‘run 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.’
After Helsinki, Zátopek became something of a figurehead for the Communist regime. He believed strongly in the possibility of a progressive Communist Czechoslovakia, and he was a popular figure: ‘The people love us, Dana,’ he said, ‘We have to love them back.’ But gradually his support for the government waned. Zátopek belonged to the same generation as Milan Kundera, Pavel Kohout and Václav Havel, who had grown up with communism but had begun, by the mid-1960s, to question the direction in which it was going. After the failure of the planned economy he became disenchanted with the regime, and, following the Prague Spring in 1968, he and Dana both signed Ludvík Vaculík’s ‘Two Thousand Words’, a manifesto that argued for more openness and accountability in Czech political life. It was a dangerous document to be associated with. When the Soviets invaded on 20 August Zátopek took to the streets, giving fiery speeches on the barricades and taking part in pirate TV broadcasts across Prague. On 16 January, the student Jan Palach poured petrol over himself in Wenceslas Square and burned to death. Members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party claimed that a liberal cabal had tricked Palach into self-immolation. Zátopek was one of those accused.
The accusation ruined him. Instead of being executed or sent to the uranium mines, the Prague Spring dissenters were punished by being forced out of Czech society. By the mid-1970s, more than 300,000 people had lost their jobs for ideological reasons; they became sewer workers, builders and undertakers’ assistants. Zátopek found work as part of a geological survey team that drilled wells for mineral water in the wastes of Bohemia. His fellow workers didn’t have a huge amount of respect for the Olympian in their midst. ‘I have already got to know the world from on high,’ he said: ‘Now I am getting to know it from down below.’ In the end, cowed and living a hard and impoverished life, Zátopek renounced his public statements in support of the revolution. His achievements as an athlete were removed from school textbooks and a stadium that had been named after him was renamed the Summer Stadium – its name to this day. He had set 18 world records, three Olympic records and fifty national ones, but his post-athletic life wasn’t a happy one.

In the 1990s, after the Velvet Revolution, he was accused of having been an agent for the StB, the plain-clothes secret police set up after the war by the Soviets, and an agent provocateur during the Prague Spring. Was he an agent? It seems unlikely, and if he was, he was a pretty ineffective one. His support for the regime was a public fact, as was his later criticism of it. But it is true that he made compromises. ‘Czech history is littered with the charred remains of heroes who refused to compromise in the face of irresistible force,’ Askwith writes. Zátopek wasn’t one of them. He died, after several strokes, in 2000. ‘We endurance runners like to practise a lot,’ he said. 
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