Spreading joy, embracing pain – how Emil Zátopek became an all-time running legend

Emil Zátopek

The great Czech multiple Olympic champion Emil Zátopek was born exactly a century ago, on September 19, 1922. Regarded by some as the greatest runner of all time, Zátopek is known for both unmatched determination and an affable nature. However, though he suffered after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, some feel that political missteps took the sheen off his reputation.  I discussed the athletics great with Richard Askwith, author of Zátopek: Today We Die a Little.

Obviously Zátopek was a four-time Olympic champion. But several runners have won multiple golds. What for you is special about Emil Zátopek?

“Running and sport for him was a vehicle for friendship and adventure.”

“I think what was special about Emil Zátopek was not so much what he did – although his achievement was unique in getting the three distance golds at the Olympics – but how he did it.

“Running and sport for him was a vehicle for friendship and adventure.

“It was all about meeting interesting people, making friends with them, bringing people together.

“And the joy that he brought to the sport was, I think, really why he was so loved at the time.

“He could have set the same medals and set the same records, but without that personality I think we would have forgotten him years ago, probably.”

Richard Askwith | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International

Of course in Helsinki in 1952 he won the marathon in the Olympics. It was his first ever marathon. Is that the achievement that really sealed his reputation as a great runner?

“He was always doing crazy things. He tried things that no-one else had done.”

“I guess it sealed his legendary status in the sense that it completed his treble.

“I think the fact that he was running the marathon for the first time was just characteristic – it was the sort of thing he would do.

“He was always doing crazy things. He tried things in training, and tried things in racing, that no-one else had done.

“No-one else had tried to run that fast before.

“He succeeded because he imagined it and believed it might be possible.

“For him it was always a question of, Why not? Let’s give it a try.”

He is known for his ungainly looking running style. Clearly, though, he was doing something right. What made him such a good runner, physically?

Emil Zatopek | Photo: Roger Rössing,  Deutsche Fotothek,  CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

“I think physically he didn’t have natural speed.

“He didn’t have the unique genetic gift that some people seem to have.

“I think it was simply that he trained himself to tolerate pain and discomfort, and to embrace it cheerfully.

“And he developed this courage whereby when he felt he couldn’t keep going, he’d make himself go faster.

“It was always about the cheerful embracing of pain.”

Were there any particular training methods that you think gave him an edge?

“I think his use of high-volume interval training – no-one else had done that before.

“I think certainly among distance runners his simple insight that running slowly teaches me to run slowly – if I want to run fast, I’ve got to practice running fast.

“So although people had experimented with interval training at other distances before, it was him who realised that if you want to run at world record standard you have to practice running at world record standard.”

You already allude to his smile that he ran with and his personality, but could you please elaborate on that, in terms of what kind of a man he was?

Emil Zátopek | Photo: Roger & Renate Rössing,  Deutsche Fotothek,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Germany+

“It’s very hard to put a finger on what he was.

“I think there was something childlike about him, something very innocent.

“But he also had this remarkable capacity which, oddly enough, I think he shares with the late Queen – whose funeral is taking place on the same day as his centenary – of sort of bringing people together.

“Several athletes told me that if they were at a race meeting or a social occasion, if Zátopek was there he became this focal point that brought people together.

“That’s why, again, I think the Helsinki Olympics, which were the first real Cold War Olympics, with athletes divided in two… it was Zátopek who brought it together, and made it such a united occasion.”

I understand that he was basically able to train as a professional athlete as a member of the Czechoslovak Army, as a soldier. Was being in the army a benefit for him, in terms of being able to prepare for races?

Emil Zátopek in 1948 | Photo: Archive of Czech Radio

“I suspect it probably was, compared with many people.

“But as I think his English rival Christopher Chataway pointed out, if you were a potential Olympic medallist and you were working for a British, a capitalist, company, they would give you a lot of leeway to train.

“I think everyone in all cultures thought that it would be great for their country to win a medal.

“So it wasn’t that big a difference, but he certainly thought of it as a benefit.”

September 19 is also the centenary of the birth of his wife, Dana Zátopková, who herself was also an Olympic champion in 1952. How would you characterise their relationship?

Emil and Dana Zátopek | Photo:  eSbírky,  National Museum in Prague,  CC BY 4.0

“I think it was very tempestuous.

“It was very romantic, especially in the early days, but it was a long marriage, it wasn’t as idyllic as it’s sometimes painted.

“But I think they shared the sense that life, and also sport, should be fun.

“They shared a strong sense of hospitality and they were always welcoming people into their homes, together.

“And after Emil died Dana remained the most generous and hospitable person you could possibly imagine.”

I remember being around her at one occasion, when they were announcing plans for an Olympic bid for Prague, and even though she was already I guess in her 80s at that time she seemed like a very formidable lady. You spent time with her – how did you find her?

“I thought she was great.

“I really liked her and it was really sad that she died in the middle of the pandemic and I couldn’t even come to her funeral.

“She just had a really positive approach to life. She was like a much younger person in that respect.

“And although it frustrated her that walking to train became difficult and her hearing deteriorated, she always liked to joke, she always liked to tell stories and cheer everyone up.

“Again, she had this quality, like Emil, of bringing people together and just wanting people to be happy.”

Emil and Dana Zátopek | Photo: Archive of Czech Radio

Zátopek was opposed to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and was then kicked out of the Communist Party. But there’s also another side of him, politically. He was accused of signing an article in Rudé Právo in support of the execution of Milada Horáková. Also there was a strange case where he and others were accused of tricking Jan Palach into setting himself on fire. They took the Communist MP who made that claim, Vilém Nový, to court, but then Zátopek withdrew the suit and apologised. How much do you think he let himself down politically at times?

“He did let himself down at times, but I think he was in terribly difficult circumstances.

“He did let himself down at times, but I think he was in terribly difficult circumstances.”

“Somebody said to me when I first started to research the book, We didn’t live in those time, it’s not appropriate for us to judge people.

“I’m not sure, really, how much he knew about the Milada Horáková letter.

“But certainly with the Nový trial he lost his nerve. I think he was put under a huge amount of pressure.

“The Communist regime really cared what he said and did, because he was a national icon.

Emil Zátopek in 1968 | Photo: Marie Čcheidzeová,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

“At the time of the Nový trial I think he was terrified he’d be sent to prison for 20 years.

“I think he said, I was prepared to go to the edge of the abyss but not to jump into it.

“But also I think he very much regretted it.

“His reputation as an athlete was built on enduring everything and never cracking under pressure, and then suddenly under this political pressure he cracked.

“And I think he regretted it ever afterward.”

Your book is entitled Today We Die a Little: The Rise and Fall of Emil Zátopek, Olympic Legend. How did he take the fall, when in the ‘70s he was forced to do menial jobs? He was also barred for a period from living in Prague.

“I think he found it very hard.

“He wasn’t actually barred from living in Prague; he just had to be elsewhere, because he couldn’t get a job anywhere, so he couldn’t come back to Prague.

“I think that was certainly a period in which his marriage suffered.

“His reputation as an athlete was built on enduring everything and then suddenly under this political pressure he cracked.”

“I think that he had got very used to the idea that he could do everything and everyone loved him and all he had to do was go around spreading happiness.

“And then suddenly he was this controversial figure and he wasn’t acknowledged and people sort of avoided him.

“Dana said that it really wounded him, it hurt him deep in his soul.

“And he was never really quite the same confident person that he had been before that.”

What about after 1989? What status did he have following the fall of communism? Did he make many public appearances or anything like that?

“I don’t think he made that many public appearances.

“He was rehabilitated officially, but he hadn’t been a prominent dissident in recent years.

Emil Zátopek in 1968 | Photo: Central Intelligence Agency,  public domain

“I think the liberals felt he’d let them down, just as the Communists felt he had let them down.

“And he had had this loss of self-esteem and self-confidence. I think he kept his head down.

“Somebody told me that at the time of the Velvet Revolution, when everyone was gathering at Letná Plain and people were making speeches, somebody said to him, Why don’t you make a speech?

“And he said, No, no, my time has gone, it’s someone else’s world now.

“I think he slightly felt his time was gone.

“Runners used to come and see him and he was always very generous and hospitable. But in terms of being a public figure I think he slightly kept his head down.

“And his health did deteriorate relatively quickly after that.”

Last year here in Czechia David Ondricek’s biopic simply entitled Zátopek came out and brought fresh attention to Emil Zátopek. Have you seen the film?

Václav Neužil as Emil Zátopek and Martha Issová as Dana Zátopková | Photo: Martin Hrnčíř,  Czech Radio

“Yes, I have seen the film – I really enjoyed it.

“I think when you’re a biographer you always feel a bit uncomfortable with films that take liberties with the facts and change the dates and so forth.

“But what I think it did really well was capture the characters of Emil and Dana.

“Václav Neužil’s portrayal of Emil I think just captures that sort of crazy, childlike quality.

“So I really enjoyed it and I hope the film will eventually reach the worldwide audience that it deserves.”

Do you think the portrayal of Zátopek in the film as – it seemed to me – kind of wilfully naive is accurate?

“Was he wilfully naive? Or was he just actually naive? I don’t know.

“I’m sure that most people living under the darkest years of communism probably thought at times that they needed to keep their heads down, as it were, and not go looking for trouble.

“Sometimes Emil did impulsive things.

“Look at the whole episode with Stanislav Jungwirth, which is portrayed in the film – that was a very brave and, you know, stupid thing for him to do.

“But I think at other times he thought about things and didn’t act quite rashly.

“He had an ambiguous life.”

Zátopek is extremely well-known here in Czechia and today I think he is really widely respected. You call him “the greatest Olympic runner of all time”. But is that view shared widely, internationally?

“There are lots of people, especially people of my generation, who think that.

Zatopek running magazine | Photo: Guillaume Narguet,  Radio Prague International

“Runners’ World magazine, which is really the biggest runners’ magazine in the world, did a poll in 2013, where they basically tried to work out the greatest runner of all time over any distance.

“And they, by a process of elimination, chose Emil Zátopek.

“More recently, I think a year or so ago, they did a similar poll – actually, maybe it was a different magazine that did it – and people chose Usain Bolt.

“So there are rivals to the claim, especially if you’re looking just at medals and achievements.

“But, as I say, I think what was really special about Emil was the way he revolutionised his sport, but he also encouraged people to see sport in a different way.

“He left this legacy, which is really still alive today, of sport and running being seen as a vehicle for friendship.”