Dana Zátopková recalls past Olympic triumphs

Dana Zátopková (Foto: Archiv von Suomen Urheilumuseo)

With the summer Olympics fast approaching Czechs are gauging their chances and reliving past triumphs. One of the highlights of these past successes was the 1952 triumph at the Olympic games in Helsinki when 30-year-old runner Emil Zátopek and his wife Dana bagged four gold medals in quick succession. Sixty years on Dana, now just weeks short of 90, recalls their incredible life together and the hard-won successes that made them a household name.

Dana Zátopková | Photo: Suomen Urheilumuseo,  public domain
Thinking back to the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, Dana has good memories of those days. It was the year she met her future husband Emil Zátopek. Dana had just set a national javelin record with a throw of 40 metres which proved to be her ticket to the Olympic Games in London. Emil, already well-known, came over to congratulate her and they got talking –finding that they not only shared a love of sports but that they had been born on the same day, in the same month and year.

They travelled to the London Olympics as a couple. Emil Zátopek won gold in the 10,000 metres and came second in the 5,000 metres. Dana Ingrová, as she was then, came seventh in the javelin. Their romance blossomed and Emil proposed on the trip to London, buying rings at Piccadilly Circus. The rings were the wrong size and were eventually melted down into one that Dana alone wore, but the marriage was rock solid and lasted until Zátopek’s death in 2000.

Today with 60 years of hindsight Dana says that the 1948 Olympics were in many ways a revelation.

“I must say that the London experience influenced my whole life. Imagine what a shock it was for a simple Moravian girl to suddenly find herself in London admiring Big Ben and Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. It was like a dream come true. It was a fairytale world. But what made an even bigger impression was the spirit of the Olympics which was palpable. It was in London that I started to take my sporting career seriously, that I developed a strong admiration for the Olympics idea and intensely wanted to be part of it.”

Four years later the couple shared their greatest sporting triumph at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. Dana recalls that the journey to the Olympics that year was fraught with problems due to the political situation at home.

“Few people know what a dramatic time the beginning of the games was for us. All because of politics. We had a friend in the Dukla club where we trained –a certain Standa Jungwirth -who was an extremely promising and talented young runner – but he was politically in hot water because the communists had jailed his father for speaking out against the regime. It was the hardline 1950s and without political clearance you were finished. So there was talk that Standa wouldn’t be going to the Olympics no matter how good he was. But Emil put his foot down and said if he’s not going then neither am I. You let him come and I will vouch for him. He had a huge showdown with the communist top-brass but it didn’t help. On the day our flight was due we were at the airport and Emil noticed Standa was not on the list of passengers. He promptly turned around and left, leaving us to depart alone. It was an awful situation but he called their bluff and won. Three days later both Emil and Standa were on a plane for Helsinki.“

Emil Zátopek  (left),  photo: Archive of the Suomen Urheilumuseo
Despite their nerve-wracking start for Dana and Emil, the 1952 Olympics were a huge triumph –that was told and retold by them months and years later. Emil Zátopek won gold in the 5 km run, 10 km run, and the marathon. He also broke the existing Olympic record in each of the three events. Simultaneously his wife bagged the gold in the javelin throw.

Dana remembers that after Emil won the gold in the 10 km race she was preparing for her own competition and keeping her fingers crossed for him at the same time.

“I was closeted in the changing room alone trying to concentrate on the ordeal ahead and trying to stay composed but it was impossible. So I listened to the crowd cheering trying in vain to figure out who they were cheering for. When the noise died down I could wait no longer. I jumped up and ran out of the changing room bumping into the Soviet coach Romanov. Who won? I blurted out. And I remember he looked at me dumbfounded because of course Emil had won and his own wife had not gone to watch.“

By then Dana was on her way to the pitch for her own contest but on her way there she sought out Emil on his way back in to shower. Here is how he recalls the incident.

“Dana rushed up to me jumping up and down in her excitement and saying Oh my God you won, how wonderful – do let me see your medal! And I show her the medal and quick as a flash its in her handbag for good luck and she’s running off with it. I went to prepare for the marathon and was just in the shower when our coach rushes in and says: Emil you are not going to believe this – Dana set a record with her first throw – she’s going for the gold! It was a wonderful day for us.”

With a throw of 50.47 metres Dana did indeed win the gold medal and crowed with delight that she could show it off to her famous husband.

“He was waiting for me at the bus and I will never forget how he looked at me. It was as if he had never seen me before, as if I were a revelation. And later he teased me about throwing the javelin 50 metres because I was so happy over his victory. He said he had made a significant contribution to my gold medal because he inspired me. Of course the story filtered through to journalists who reported Emil’s version of events.”

In reality Dana gave as good as she got and whenever Emil teased her about this retorted “Oh you inspired me, did you? Okay, go inspire some other girl and see if she throws a javelin fifty metres!" That remark too made headlines as did much of their witty, good-natured banter.

Emil retired from active sports in 1957, Dana some years later –after winning the silver at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Although they received many offers the Zátopeks never thought to emigrate since they felt that this was their home. They stayed and devoted their time to coaching.

The years between 1968 –the Soviet led invasion – and the fall of communism were tough. For his support of the Prague Spring movement Emil Zátopek - four times Olympic champion with 18 world records to his name - was barred from coaching and forced into manual labour. Dana’s salary was cut and the family lived on a pittance. The communist media shunned them. But they clung to their dignity and convictions.

After 1989 they were reinstated and Emil Zátopek was named the Czech Republic's Olympian of the Century by the Czech Olympic Committee in 1999. He died a year later of a stroke. His wife now lives a quiet life. Although she was invited to attend the London Olympics she will be staying home and watching events on television. She says she’s too old to run around but not too old to savour the excitement from her sofa. So she’ planning to invite friends, open a good bottle of wine and root for the Czech athletes. However unlike others who are already counting medals, she advises caution.

“You know well that my heart belongs to the javelin. And I am proud that we have good javelin throwers to send to these competitions. I am hoping for a gold for Bára Špotáková and Víťa Veselý is also a big talent. But you know we always count our chickens way too early. That is not good and it scares away good fortune. So I say let us wait and see.”