Sporting legend Emil Zatopek laid to rest in Prague

Emil Zatopek

The funeral of the legendary athlete Emil Zatopek took place in Prague on Wednesday. Leading Czech politicians, the presidents of the International Olympic Committee and the International Amateur Athletics Federation, and famous sportsmen from around the world were all present for the solemn occasion. And thousands of people who couldn't get into the crowded National Theatre where the ceremony was held, stood outside, paying homage to the hero, who was, and will be remembered as much more than just an outstanding athlete. Olga Szantova reports:

Overnight his name spread around the world and people who had never heard of Czechoslovakia pored over their maps to find out where the great athlete's home lay. In his own country he became a national hero in the true sense of the word and he remained that throughout the years. Emil Zatopek had won the 5 and 10 thousand meters and the marathon all within 8 days--and he won each of those races in Olympic record time.

All in all Emil Zatopek set 18 world records at a time when sportsmen did not have the financial backing they take for granted nowadays, at a time when neither tracks nor sports equipment were as advanced as they are now. And those handicaps were even bigger in a country where communist rule had just recently taken over and where austerity measures and shortcomings of all sorts presented hurdles to be overcome.

Emil Zatopek did so through hard systematic training and extreme will power. And he showed that determination not only in his sports career. He was outspoken in his backing of the 1968 political liberalization struggle, backing Alexander Dubcek's attempts to bring more democracy into the communist-dominated system.

When the Prague Spring was defeated, Zatopek was one of these who suffered the consequences. He was stripped of his official state awards, and worked for some years as a laborer. But he was never defeated, and always spoke up for the rights of his nation, regardless of the consequences, winning the respect of his countrymen: Antonio Samaranch's words at Emil Zatopek's funeral on Wednesday did not refer only to the late athlete's achievements as a sportsman, they referred to him as a great man. And the music his widow, herself an Olympic Games gold medallist chose for the sad occasion, folk music from his native region in Moravia, music he loved, brought home the fact that the great internationally recognized athlete was very much a part of his nation.

Author: Olga Szantová
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