The “Czech Locomotive” – a long-distance runner Emil Zátopek – was born 100 years ago in the city of Kopřivnice.
He became world-famous by winning at the 1952 Olympics Games in Helsinki (5,000m, 10,000m, and Marathon). Zátopek was also the first runner to break the 29-minute barrier in 10,000m.
But it was the influence of Zatopek that spoke as much to his greatness.
It is often said that someone is a man, or woman, of his or her times. Zatopek was often a man who seemed at odds with the prevailing views. His background was entirely parochial – born into a large family in what was then Czechoslovakia, apprenticed to the local Bata shoe factory, he came to athletic maturity while running, training, but most of all surviving in his Nazi-occupied homeland.
As the post-war world ossified into two competing blocs during the Cold War era, Zatopek was a practising internationalist. In Helsinki, where the eastern bloc athletes were housed in a different Village from the rest of the athletes, Zatopek virtually conducted open house. He trained and chatted with whomever could be bothered to make the trek out to his accommodation.
Zatopek had few training secrets other than hard work and ambitious goals, but he shared willingly of his ideas. His attitude seemed to be: “Here is what I do. Come, do it with me if you like. And if you can do it better than me, good luck to you.”
Zatopek retired after finishing sixth in the Melbourne 1956 Olympic marathon to become a revered figure in his home country. The Communist regime which had pressured him to maintain his extraordinary performance levels during his career, now made him one of its exemplars.
But he fell into obscurity after the Soviet Union crushed the Prague Spring reforms of 1968, which Zatopek had vociferously supported to the extent of speaking critically of the Soviet ‘liberators’.
Sent into internal exile, Zatopek worked as an itinerant labourer in the mines, drifting dangerously towards alcoholism. Eventually, he was rehabilitated.
At first, he was allowed to travel as a Czech hero – including to the first world championships in Helsinki, where he won his famous treble, in 1983, and also to Melbourne in 1985. But it was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in late 1989 that Zatopek was fully welcomed back.
Emil Zátopek died in Prague from stroke-related complications on November 22, 2000. He was 78 years old. In 2013, the editors of the magazine Runner’s World stated that Zátopek was the greatest runner of all time.