Dana Zatopkova - 50 years after Helsinki Olympics

Dana Zatopkova, photo CTK

Recently, the Czech team from the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games got together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event. Among those present was the gold-winning javelin-thrower from Helsinki, Dana Zatopkova, who celebrated her 80th birthday in September. In this week's Profile we look at Dana Zatopkova's sporting career and her life with her, now deceased, husband Emil.

At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics Dana and Emil Zatopek became the most famous sporting couple in the world. They were born on the same day, in the same month and year and they both made Olympic history at the Helsinki games when they won four gold medals between them.

Dana Zatopkova,  photo: CTK
The couple had met four years previously at a competition in which Dana set a national javelin record with a throw of 40 metres. She remembers that the record gave her the green light for the Olympic games in London. Emil came to congratulate her and she felt flattered because he was so well known. A couple of days later, Emil Zatopek set a new national record for the 3,000 metres. This time it was Dana who congratulated Emil and their romance started to blossom.

Together, they went to the Olympic games in London that summer. Emil Zatopek won gold in the 10,000 metres and he came second in the 5,000 metres, when he was narrowly beaten by Gaston Reiff of Belgium. Dana Ingrova, as she was then, came seventh in the javelin. Not only did Emil win the gold in London, he also won Dana's heart. He proposed to her there and they bought their wedding rings in Piccadilly Circus. And although for Dana the wedding band was the only gold in London, four years later the couple shared four gold medals at the Helsinki games. Here Dana Zatopkova re-accounts the memory of one day in the summer of 1952 when she and Emil both won in their respective competitions.

"According to the original timetable the javelin throw and the men's five kilometres were scheduled for the same time. I was a bit nervous because Emil made every race a big problem and I knew many experts were awaiting the race because everybody was curious who was going to win. Emil was no longer a favourite, there were plenty of new young athletes who were aiming for gold. I was worried I wouldn't be able to concentrate on my own race."

Dana finally had time to focus on her race but she missed something else - one of the most spectacular and celebrated races in the history of athletics, when her thirty-year-old husband won the 5,000 metres in a dramatic sprint finish against the great stars of the day.

"Finally, I was lucky because before the javelin-throw, someone made a world record in the hammer-throw and everything got postponed because of all the additional measurements. The five-kilometre race started but the javelin-throw was delayed and we were told to wait until the five-kilometre race was over. I was glad and returned to the changing room and so I missed the race. I heard the crowds cheering but I didn't know whom they were cheering. When the noise died down I went out and asked a coach in the corridor who had won the five kilometres, and he said Emil, of course."

Just a few minutes later, Dana Zatopkova won the gold in javelin with a throw of 50.47 metres, the last Olympic record before wooden javelins were replaced with metal ones. It was the first (and up until today, the last) time ever, that a husband and wife became Olympic champions on the same day, during the same games. However, Emil had an advantage over Dana in the medal stakes as he had already, a few days before, won gold in the 10,000 metres. His second medal, from the 5-kilometre race brought luck to his wife Dana, as she recalls.

"When I got on the field, Emil was just on his way back from the medal ceremony and we ran into each other. And I said, please give me your medal for good luck. He gave it to me, I put it in my bag and went to our field. And my very first throw made an Olympic record, it was over 50 metres, and I won with that first throw. So Emil's medal brought me good luck."

And just like Dana missed her husband's performance, Emil too, was somewhere else when she threw the Olympic record. Instead of cheering on his wife, Emil was already focusing on the marathon. He had left for the Olympic village to learn how one was actually supposed to run it. Emil was taking a shower when one of the Czechoslovak officials told him that Dana had broken the Olympic record in her first attempt. Emil Zatopek thought that his two medals against Dana's one were too narrow a margin and in a joke he said he had to win the marathon. And indeed, he won it a few days later in 2 hours 23 minutes, more than two minutes ahead of the Argentinean Reinaldo Gordo. The triumphant reception he received as he entered the Olympic stadium is one of the most moving moments in the history of sport: not just for the tumultuous applause of the spectators, but also because something that nobody could have imagined happened. The Jamaican relay team who had just set a world record as they beat the American team, hoisted Zatopek to their shoulders and carried him around the stadium on a lap of honour.

The Zatopeks both came from Moravia. They both started their sports careers very late for today's standards. Emil was 19 when as an apprentice at a shoe factory he took part in a student run and to his own and his teacher's amazement proved to be an outstanding runner. Dana was even older, she was twenty-four when she started with athletics.

After Helsinki, the couple devoted themselves to the coaching of new talents, but before she retired from athletics, Dana won the silver at the Rome Olympics in 1960 at the age of 38. While other Czechoslovak athletes sometimes took the Olympics as an opportunity to flee from communism, this never occurred to the Zatopeks. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico where the couple had been invited as guests of honour, they were approached by a number of western Olympics teams who offered them asylum and jobs, but the Zatopeks refused.

The Zatopeks | Photo: archive of Czech Radio
Following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, Emil Zatopek the star athlete and Czechoslovak army colonel was stripped of his military rank, removed from the Communist party and barred from coaching. All that because he backed the reforms of the Prague Spring, and then condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact armies. Emil Zatopek was forced into manual labour and his wife Dana recalls the seven years he spent working outside Prague and came home only once a fortnight. She had to struggle to make ends meet, as the authorities lowered her salary substantially after she signed an anti-communist petition.

After the fall of communism in 1989, the couple continued to live an active life in their house close to the Vltava in Prague. They were often seen taking walks or cycling in the Stromovka park. Emil Zatopek, a four-times Olympic champion, with 18 world records to his credit, was named the Czech Republic's Olympian of the Century by the Czech Olympic Committee in 1999.

In 2000 Emil Zatopek died at the age of 78 after suffering a stroke. Since her husband's death, Dana has continued to coach young athletes and divides her free time among the Czech Olympians' Club, the Czech Representation Foundation and writing for the magazine "Athletics". Currently, Dana Zatopkova is fully engaged in organising relief for the district of Troja in Prague where she lives and which was badly hit by the recent floods.