Emil Zátopek: a Czech sporting hero

Emil Zátopek

The early 1950s in Czechoslovakia was a bleak period in the country’s history, but there was also some escape from politics. In 1952 the Summer Olympics were held in the Finnish capital Helsinki and the undisputed hero of the games was the greatest Czech runner of all time, Emil Zátopek. Despite his extraordinary style, with his face contorted, his head and torso swinging, and emitting sounds that earned him the nickname of “the Czech locomotive”, he went to Helsinki having already twice broken the world record over 20 kilometres. His dream at the Olympics was to win two gold medals: in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres. Czechoslovak Radio’s Bohuš Ujček and Vítězslav Mokroš were there to report on the event.

Emil Zátopek | Photo: Roger Rössing,  Deutsche Fotothek,  CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
First, on July 20, came the 10,000 metres. The excitement was enormous as Zátopek pulled ahead in the final few hundred metres and steamed across the line, breaking the Olympic record in the process.

“What a finish. He’s in the final straight. He is just a hundred metres from victory – 40… 30… 20… Emil has crossed the line.”

A resounding cheer from the crowd of 75,000 followed.

Four days later, on July 24 1952, came the 5,000 metres final. This race was even more dramatic, and the excitement of the two radio reporters reached an even higher pitch as Zátopek surged ahead from fourth to first place in a dramatic last lap that saw Britain’s Christopher Chataway fall, as his foot caught on the kerb.

“Zatopek has broken away: he’s four metres ahead… five metres… O’Kacha [Alain Mimoun O’Kacha of France] is in second place…. And Zátopek has won… second Mimoun, third Schade [Herbert Schade of Germany]. What a wonderful race. Emil has achieved something that the world has never seen before!”

Once again Emil Zátopek had won gold and broken the Olympic record. But it had been a tough race:

“I decided to try for a break in the last lap, so I spurted ahead - which the others weren’t expecting. By the time they’d seen what was happening, I’d got ahead, in time for the last spurt before the finishing line and so I won it.”

But this was not all. At the Helsinki Olympics Zátopek also ran what was – amazingly - his first ever marathon. That was just three days later on July 27. Once again the Olympic fanfare sounded, as the leading athlete entered the stadium for the final few hundred metres:

“Zátopek is the first through the gate. We declare to the republic: At these, the fifteenth Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Staff Captain Emil Zátopek is approaching the finishing line in first place. He smiles and crosses the tape.”

The crowd rose to its feet with cries of “ZÁTOPEK… ZÁTOPEK…”

The 30-year-old professional soldier, who some had said was already past his best, had won an astonishing three gold medals, each time breaking the Olympic record. Afterwards he described in English the moment of winning the marathon:

“I was frightened that I would collapse or something. One kilometre later I stood alone. It was a great surprise for me. Without eating or drinking I ran all the way to the stadium, only the tape saved me from collapsing.”

At the time Emil Zátopek sympathized with the new political order in Czechoslovakia, but sixteen years later he openly condemned the Soviet invasion of the country in August 1968. As a punishment he was made to work in a uranium mine and it was many years before he was to be rehabilitated. He died on November 21 2000 at the age of 78, and his funeral was attended by the president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, who described him as the embodiment of the Olympic spirit.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on October 23, 2008.

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