Running legend Emil Zátopek: separating fact from fiction

Emil Zátopek

With the Summer Olympics now looming, it’s probably appropriate to look a bit deeper at the life and times of probably the greatest Czechoslovak athlete ever, the distance runner Emil Zátopek. It was Zátopek who astoundingly won a trio of gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres and the marathon, amazingly a distance that he had never competed at before.

Emil Zátopek | Photo: Roger Rössing,  Deutsche Fotothek,  CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
Zátopek, born into relative poverty in the early 1920s, experienced many of the trials of 20th century Czechslovakia. The Nazi occupation, Communist takeover, Prague Spring and Soviet-led invasion. For Zátopek, his outspoken opposition to the Soviet invasion of August 1968 resulted in him losing his job in the army, many of his privileges, and eventually being recruited as a worker for a company drilling bore holes in some of the remotest parts of the country.

In the sporting world, he is credited as pioneering, albeit in a sometimes unorthodox way, some of the training techniques that are now commonplace. Zátopek was more than willing to share those secrets with his rivals and, sadly, a few years after his greatest triumph in Helsinki, he was being overshadowed by them.

British journalist and author Richard Askwith has recently published a book about Emil Zátopek called “Today we die a little – the rise and fall of Emil Zátopek Olympic Legend.” The athlete comes across as a very complex man and it was clearly a massive task to try and work out when facts blurred into fiction. I asked Mr. Askwith when he first came to be interested in the Czechoslovak runner.

“Well, I think I have been fascinated by Zátopek for as long as I can remember. I think I probably first heard of him in my early teens when people in the West were wondering what had happened to him after the Prague Spring. Then as I grew up I became a keen recreational runner and I thought of him as an inspiration really. When the going got tough you thought about Zátopek and his amazing training sessions, running through the snow in his army boots and all that kind of stuff. He has always been a hero of mine and not just because he won medals and set records, although he did an amazing amount of both, but he did it with this wonderful personality, this generosity of spirit that made ripples all across the world. I had always thought that it would be too difficult for me as an English person to get to the bottom of this story but then a publisher suggested it and I had a look and I just couldn’t stop really.”

“I have no doubt that if had he messed up on the athletic front, had he not won the gold medals, he would have been probably off to the uranium mines.”

And the sources, obviously a lot of the people that he knew are no longer around, but you were able to speak to some of the people who knew him. And the archival material, perhaps we could talk about that. I presume there was quite a lot in both the army and secret police archives but maybe there wasn’t as much as you expected?

“Well, there was loads of detail in both the secret police and the military archives actually. And loads of it I could not use because there was so much detail that I could not use it. There were volumes on the areas and periods it covered. It was fascinating to look at but I had to leave a lot of that out. But then three were gaps. The StB files, there are gaps in the 1950s. The bulk of it concerns them watching him after 1968. I certainly could not get a complete picture of his life just from the archives because they do not go from birth to death. But there were a surprising number of people who did remember him even going back to Koprivnice and finding school friends who very vividly remembered growing up with him. That was fantastic. Then there was, of course his family and Dana Zátopková, his widow, was terribly helpful and showed me lots of things and we went through her memories again and again. There is no shortage of evidence, just different kinds and from different periods of his life.”

As you mentioned in the book, there are a lot of myths and legends about Emil Zátopek. And he perhaps was one of the causes of that because he liked to elaborate, apparently. Could you describe some of those myths and legends and the ones that you were able to discount?

Photo: Nation Books
“Yes, there were endless ones really. He loved to tell stories and he was very humourous, witty, and was a great entertainer and things often got exaggerated. One example, it’s not hugely important, is that it was often said that he used to train with Dana, his wife, on his back. Talking to Dana about it, she that it perhaps happened once but that was it. But going through the journalistic sources especially, I found interviews from the time with people and he is definitely saying it. Before the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne he injured himself in some way and he said I tripped on a root while training with Dana on my back and he had to have a hernia operation. Either that is a mistranslation or a journalist has exaggerated or whatever. But on the other hand I did find someone, a lovely American lady who must be in her 70s now, who had been growing up near Stará Boleslav, where Emil used to train outside Prague, and she had been carried on Emil’s shoulders when he was training in the woods as a child. But again, the timing did not quite match up with the injury and ultimately one can’t quite tell quite what happened.

“Another popular myth in the West came after 1968, or rather 1969 when he was chucked out of the army and the Communist Party, and became a non-person and was written out of history, and there were always rumours circulating in the West about what he as doing. And there was always this rumour in the West that he worked as a garbage collector but that it didn’t work because every time he used to take the rubbish out people came and tried to help him and it caused a civil disturbance. On the one hand, there does not seem to be any evidence of this and Dana denies it and other people deny it and they say that once maybe he was just photographed taking a dust bin out. On the other hand, there is at least one interview with an English journalist where he seems to have said this. Those are just two small example but it shows how difficult it is to say anything with absolute certainty. The sporting stuff is obviously on public record and you have dates and records and film and all that, but the anecdotal stuff is very hard to pin down.”

One thing you were able to pin down, and this surprise me because I had not been aware of it, was the flight to Helsinki and his protest before going to Finland for those Olympics. He stood up to the authorities and probably risked not going himself and probably a lot more. That does not seem to have been much in the public realm before?

“I do not think there will ever be an athletic achievement like that.”

“Not very much, no. I think it did briefly emerge into the public domain. I think Oto Pavel wrote about it in 1967. But what must have happened is that almost immediately afterwards you get the Prague Spring and then Zátopek becomes someone you are not allowed to talk about and it really never made much impact. But yes, there was this really extraordinary story, that I start the book with, that in 1952, days before they are due to fly to Helsinki and it is the absolute highlight of Zátopek’s sporting career and, as it turns out, he will win this unprecedented clean sweep of distance running gold medals, and he must know that he has the chance of a lifetime. But they collect their plane tickets and he finds out that his friend Stanislav Jungwirth hasn’t got a ticket. He has been dropped because his father is in trouble because he had been distributing subversive leaflets or something like that and the authorities decide that he cannot be allowed to leave the country to some non-Warsaw Pact country. Emil just loses his temper and says if he’s not going, I’m not going. And they have this amazing stand-off and the plane actually leaves without them. According to one account, there are thousands of Finns waiting in Helsinki to greet the amazing Emil Zátopek when he arrived and he was not there. It’s very hard to find the actual detailed records of what happened and when. They arrived on a later plane either a day or two later because the authorities ultimately lost their nerve. Emil was taken to the Ministry of Defense and given a ticket, but he thought he was being taken there to be arrested.

Richard Askwith,  photo: archive of Richard Askwith
“And in fact, after and Jungwirth had flown to Helsinki, according to Emil a plan or proposal for the exemplary punishment of Captain Zátopek was drawn up. He was eventually told by the secretary of the then Chief of Staff that when news got back to Prague that he had won his third Olympic gold, this proposal was torn up. But from a sporting perspective it is interesting that everything he did in Helsinki, which included amazing athletic achievements and also amazing charm and friendship kindness to his fellow athletes and diplomacy. All that was done with this great shadow hanging over him. I have no doubt that if had he messed up on the athletic front, had he not won the gold medals, he would have been probably off to the uranium mines.”

For all the fact that his in the military and probably in the early days was probably a sympathizer with the Communist Party, it comes out later that he was quite outspoken and very independent in spirit, almost recklessly so?

“I think he was very independent minded. He was a very unusual, an eccentric person. Sometimes, looking at his military records, his superiors are saying, it’s a bit like The Good Soldier Svejk or something like that - they cannot work out if he is being cunning or if he is just being childlike. They are saying that he has peculiar opinions. Sometimes he felt strongly about something and his opinions were incorrect and people often used to say that often he would start an argument thinking one thing and end it thinking the opposite. He could be manipulated. I think that he was a very idealistic person and that he wanted to do the right thing. He certainly did not always do the right thing, but he did his best and often he was spectacularly brave and always he was amazingly generous and kind. That was the real thing that struck me whoever I spoke to from whatever period of his life, everyone just said he was so kind, so generous spirited and that is the wonderful thing about him.”

To try and sum up, the three gold medals in Helsinki, do you think they can ever be matched in today’s era?

“His sporting achievements were done in an era not just before drugs but also in an era before specialist equipment, before specialist nutrition.”

“I am pretty sure they can’t. I think the distances are even more demanding than they were then. The standards are so high and the training, and the athletes are so specialized. I mean, Mo Farah who won the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in London in 2012, he said that he would not have even thought for a moment about doing the treble. The demands on the body are just too great. And the fact that Emil did this, he won the 10,000 metres easily, the 5,000metres people talked about as the race of the century, an incredibly intense competition. And then the marathon, he had never run a marathon before, but he just goes off and does it and breaks the Olympic record and does it with great charm. I do not think there will ever be an athletic achievement like that.”

And finally, I suppose what contributes to the legend is that this was done in an era before drugs basically. I mean, okay maybe drugs were coming in in the late 1950s and 1960s in the Warsaw Bloc and elsewhere but the achievements were based on training and there is no suggestion that drugs were involved?

“I think so. There is one suspicion that when he was in Zlín studying chemistry he might have once seen what happened if he took Benzedrine. But basically yes, his sporting achievements were done in an era not just before drugs but also in an era before specialist equipment, before specialist nutrition. That is one of the things that astounds modern athletes about him, the fact that they are having every little thing that goes into their body monitored for the maximal nutritional effect. He was just having Moravian goulash and Pilsner beer. To the Melbourne Olympics he took his own crate of Pilsner Urquell because he thought it helped him rehydrate. ‘This gives me power,’ he once said.”

I think he had to share it…

“He had to share it round, that’s right, yes. He should have kept quiet about it.”