“It was staged”: Journalist on grandfather’s iconic photo of Zátopeks kissing
A photo of Emil Zátopek kissing wife Dana Zátopková after winning Olympic gold in his first ever marathon – on July 27, 1952 – is a key image in athletics history. It also means a great deal to Swiss journalist Melanie Pfändler, who says that according to family lore it was taken by her grandfather. I spoke to Pfändler ahead of the 70th anniversary of the race that helped make Zátopek an all-time great.
“The story of this photograph is that it was taken during the Helsinki Summer Olympics in 1952.
“It became quite an iconic photograph afterwards, because I think there are not too many photographs of athletes kissing their wives who also happened to be Olympic gold medal winners.
“So it was quite a special photo at the time already.
“And it has a special meaning for me personally, because it was taken by my grandfather.”
Your Swiss grandfather Kurt Pfändler was a photographer and graphic designer. What was he doing in Helsinki 70 years ago, during the Olympics? Did he typically cover sports?
“I had to dive quite deep into my family history [laughs] to learn more about that.
“So I reached out to my uncles to ask them if they knew more about his assignment.
“My grandfather was quite a creative man. As you said, he was a photographer, he was a graphic designer, but he was also a cameraman, at a time when TV was obviously still in its early days.
“My uncles told me he was working for the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, for their official film of the games.
“I tried to confirm on their website but I didn’t find any evidence of him officially working for them, but that’s what I know.”
In 1952 your Swiss grandfather had zero connection to Czechoslovakia, but a few decades later he did have a connection with the country – is that correct?
“Exactly, that’s what makes this story special to me, or what touched me, when I rediscovered this photograph again.
“I am half-Swiss, I grew up in Switzerland, but I am also half-Czech – my mother was born in Czechoslovakia in the exact year of the Helsinki Summer Games, so in 1952.
“And she met my father, my Swiss father, 26 years later and they got married – and that’s why I myself and my brother and my sister were born [laughs].
“So it’s quite interesting that these family histories kind of intertwine in that moment in Helsinki – my grandfather taking this picture, having no idea that he would later in life have a very direct link to this country, to Emil Zátopek’s country.”
Did your grandfather ever meet Zátopek, apart from on that day?
“I’m not sure if they ever met afterwards, but I’m pretty sure, from what I know by now, that they spoke before this picture.
“Because what my two uncles told me, when I tried to learn more about the story of the picture, was that it was actually staged.
“That’s at least what he, my grandfather, told them: that he had asked Zátopek before to kiss Dana, his wife, in the stands, after the run.
“It’s hard to confirm that, or to verify that, obviously, so many years after.
“Also my grandfather passed away, so I did not have the chance to speak to him directly.
“But apparently he told [my uncles] that, yes, he kind of staged this iconic moment.
“It seems quite probable that this could be true, because I think at the time it would have been quite rare to kiss your wife in public as an act of celebration; today we’re used to these images, but they were very unusual at the time.
“Also my uncles say that it sounds very much like my grandfather to do something like that [laughs], to ask him to kiss his wife and make this a special memory.”
What did you think last year when you saw posters for the then new movie Zátopek referencing this exact same moment, this exact same photograph?
“I must say I was really touched.
“It was a really special moment for me, because I just came across it, I think on social media, and this memory came up from my childhood, of my father telling me, Look, this picture here of Emil Zátopek was taken by your grandfather.
“I saw this image and I remembered that phrase, but I wasn’t sure if my memory was playing a trick on me, because I never thought of this image in a long time.
“And I wasn’t sure if my childhood memory had any relation to the actual historical facts [laughs].
“So then already I reached out to one my uncles, because my father also passed away so I didn’t have the chance to ask him.
“I said to my uncle, Look, I saw this image, is it true that this was taken by Kurt, my Swiss grandfather?
“And he immediately texted me back saying, Yes, that’s right.
“So it was very nice to be kind of reconnected to an important moment in sports history, but also some kind of family legend that has passed on over the generations.”