Emil Zátopek

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Emil Zátopek was born on 19 September 19th 1922 in koprivnice, Czech Republic; Zatopek was a Czechoslovak long-distance runner best known for winning three gold medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. He won gold in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters runs, but his final medal came when he decided at the last minute to compete in the first marathon of his life. But his sporting achievements were just part of the story. It was his charm that captivated people: joyous, eccentric, life-affirming. The seventh child of a Moravian carpenter, he had spent his youth and the Second World War at the disciplinarian sweatshop-cum-industrial-school of the Bat’a shoe factory in Zlín. Forced to take up running against his will, he found, at 18, that he had a gift. He found, too, that regular training offered a form of escape from the oppression of Nazi occupation – and began to train with levels of obsession and invention that no one had contemplated before.

emil-zatopekBy the time of the liberation, he was the best runner in the country. He joined the newly reconstituted Czechoslovakian army and quickly became one of the first of a new breed of working-class, Communist-friendly officers. He had grown up in great poverty, and was a firm believer in the basic ideals of socialism.

In 1948, he went to his first Olympics, in London. He took a guitar to help him woo his team-mate Dana, then Dana Ingrová with folk songs. They had been born on the same day: 19 September 1922. “We could get married on the same day too,” suggested Emil, when they found out. Eventually, they did.

He was nicknamed the “Czech Locomotive”. Emil was a legend. In his prime, in the early 1950s, there were few better-known people on the planet. His achievements at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 were unprecedented (and remain unequalled): all three distance-running golds – 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon – in the space of eight days. The marathon was assumed to have been an afterthought. He claimed it was provoked by his wife, Dana, winning gold in the javelin on the same day as his 5,000m triumph: “I decided that the ratio of medals in the Zátopek household was insufficiently weighted in my favour.” It was his first attempt at the distance.

Zátopek was the first runner to break the 29-minute barrier in the 10,000 meters (in 1954). Three years earlier, in 1951, he had broken the hour for running 20 km. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest runners of the 20th century and was also known for his brutally tough training methods. He was the instigator of interval training and hypoventilation training. In February 2013, the editors at Runner’s World Magazine selected him as the Greatest Runner of All Time. He is the only person to win the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters, and marathon in the same Olympics.

A hero in his native country, Zátopek was an influential figure in the Communist Party. However, he supported the party’s democratic wing, and after the 1968 Prague Spring, he was stripped of his rank and expelled from the army and the party, removed from all important positions and forced to work in a string of inferior and dangerous positions, such as a uranium mine, refuse collection service, and well digging. On 9 March 1990, Zátopek was rehabilitated by Václav Havel.

Zátopek died in Prague on 22 November 2000 at the age of 78, from the complications of a stroke. His funeral at Prague’s National Theatre was crowded with leading figures from the international sports world. He was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal posthumously in December 2000. In 2012, he was named among the first twelve athletes to be inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame. A life-size bronze statue of Zátopek was unveiled at the Stadium of Youth in Zlín in September 2014.

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