Hard to emulate his feat

THERE are just a handful of sporting achievements which are unlikely to be ever emulated. One of them belongs to the Czech running legend Emil Zatopek.


Emil Zatopek winning the 10,000m event in the 1952 Olympics.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

THERE are just a handful of sporting achievements which are unlikely to be ever emulated. One of them belongs to the Czech running legend Emil Zatopek.

At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics he won gold in the 5,000m, and 10,000m and then topped it all by winning the marathon, a distance he had never tried before.

At that time it was thought the feat was impossible. Over half a century later it still is. The thought of any athlete at the Olympics attempting to match Zatopek is probably ruled out for all time.

Four years earlier at London he had burst on the world scene by taking gold in the 10,000m and silver in the 5,000m. But by Helsinki he was the biggest name in athletics.

Born on September 19, 1922 — the same date as wife Dana who won the javelin gold at Helsinki — young Emil came from a modest background and by 16 he was working in the Bata shoe factory. In 1940 the company sponsored a 1,500m race in the town of Zlin, which he was persuaded to join even though he had no formal training till then.

The teenager came second in a field of 100 and that set him on the path to running glory. Before long he was setting Czech national records and despite losing so many years to World War II he was at the peak of his powers at the 1948 London Olympics.

As he set records galore on the road from London to Helsinki, he also gathered a huge fan following around the world, fascinated by his unique running style. He also acquired two nicknames — the Czech Locomotive for his seemingly inexhaustible energy and the Bouncing Czech for the manner in which his head bobbed back and forth with the strain of running. Indeed the contorted and tortured look on his face as he won race after race gave the impression to casual onlookers that he was on the verge of collapse.

Years later when asked about those mannerisms, he replied: "I was not talented enough to run and smile at the same time."

None of his rivals were smiling either as he decimated the opposition at Helsinki. But unlike his idol Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish long distance star of the 1920s, the Czech master was a great favourite of not only the crowds but also of his fellow-runners. They admired his amiable nature — multi-lingual, he would often chat casually with them in mid-race.

A file photo of Zatopek from his later days.-AP

The first track event of the Olympics, the 10,000m was won with ease by Zatopek who smashed an amazing 42 seconds off his own 1948 record in setting an Olympic mark on his way to gold.

This time it looked like nothing and nobody would be able to thwart his golden double with his supporters considering the 5,000m, a sure fire bet for their favourite.

Zatopek himself was not so sure. The field was an exceptional one with Gaston Reiff, who had edged Zatopek at the finish line in 1948, Britain's Chris Chattaway and Gordon Pirie and the German Herbert Schade who was the fastest over the distance for the year all capable of an upset.

The day of the final was also the same day Dana was competing in her pet event. And they both would bring home gold in one of the great romantic stories of the Olympics.

It was not easy. As the bell sounded for the last lap, six runners were all in contention. Zatopek was back in fourth place and had all but given up hope of being among the medals.

At the final bend it was Chattaway in the lead. But exhausted, he stepped on the curb and fell as Zatopek surged ahead with Frenchman Alain Mimoun desperately trying to bridge the gap. It was futile. As the massive crowd ecstatically chanted his name, he took gold in a new Olympic record time of 14:06.06. A few hours later Dana set an Olympic record with her first throw for gold.

When asked soon after Dana's victory if he was going to run the marathon, Emil replied: "At present the score in the contest in the Zatopek family is 2-1. The result is too close. To restore some prestige I will try to improve on it in the marathon race."

This turned out to be his crowning glory. Never having run the distance before, Zatopek's concern was not stamina, of which he had vast reserves, but his pacing. He decided to stick behind Jim Peters of Britain who just six weeks earlier had run the fastest marathon in history.

Peters led for the first 16km with Zatopek stalking him at a safe distance. Gustav Jansson was also in the leading pack. But after exhausting his energy Peters fell away and now Zatopek and the Swede took over. Jansson too could not keep up and now Zatopek was all on his own, chatting in his inimitable style with policemen, spectators and cyclists along the route.

Anticipating the grand treble, the crowd had swelled to 68,700 at the Helsinki Stadium that Sunday afternoon. He entered the stadium far ahead of the others with chants of `Za-to-pek, Za-to-pek' ringing in his ears as he completed the final lap. The Jamaican 4x400m relay team hoisted him on their shoulders and carried the winner round the field, proof once again of his massive popularity. It was over two-and-a-half minutes later that runner-up Reinaldo Gorno arrived at the finish. It meant four gold medals for the Zatopek couple and four Olympics records to boot.

But Emil was not only a hero on the track. He was a part of the Prague uprising of 1968, demanding the establishment of freedom from the Soviet Union. When the Soviet tanks rolled in to crush those aspirations, Emil became persona non grata, reduced to doing menial jobs. It was not till the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe more than 20 years later that his pride of place in the nation was restored.

By then he was in frail health and he died on November 22, 2000, his beloved Dana by his side. His place among the immortals of the Olympics is secure for all time.