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Emil Zátopek by Andy YelenakEmil Zátopek

One of the greatest runners of the 20th Century, Emil Zátopek achieved legendary status when he won the 5,000, the 10,000 and the marathon at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.

"The Locomotive" or the "Bouncing Czech" as he came to be known, dominated long distance running from 1948 until 1954 when he won a remarkable 38 consecutive 10,000 meter races, including 11 in 1949 alone. He set 18 world records over various distances including every record from 5K to 30K, and won four Olympic gold medals and one silver.

He was the first to run a 10K under 29 minutes and the first to run 20K in one hour.

The Beginning

Emil Zátopek was born in Koprivnice, Czechoslovakia on September 19, 1922, the 6th child of a modest family. At age 16 he began working at the Bata shoe factory in Ziln. In 1940 Bata sponsored a 1,500m race, and he was persuaded to enter even though he had no training. Out of the field of 100 Emil finished second and he began to take a serious interest in the sport.

A mere four years later, in 1944 Emil broke the Czech records for 2,000, 3,000 and 5,000 meters. He was selected for the Czech national team for the 1946 European Championships. He finished fifth in the 5K, breaking his own Czech record of 14:50.2, running 14:25.8.

The Olympics

The 5-foot-8, 145 pound athlete made his Olympic debut at the 1948 London Games. He was 26 years old with little international racing experience, yet he won the 10,000 and was second in the 5,000.

Emil married Dana Ingrova, fellow Czech team member shortly after the Olympics. Dana and Emil shared the same birthday, September 19th, and they married on that day in 1948. Dana competed in the javelin and won gold in 1952 and silver in 1960.

"The Nickel, the Dime, and the Big One"

In 1952 at the Helsinki Olympics Emil achieved the impossible. Despite a doctor's warning that he shouldn't compete due to a gland infection two months before, he won the 5,000m, the 10,000m and the marathon, all in a span of eight days. He set a new Olympic record in all three events, and he had never run a marathon before!

From their 1982 book Fast Tracks - The History of Distance Running authors Raymond Krise and Bill Squires describe the 1952 Olympic 5,000 Meter Final:

The final lap: Schade, Chataway, Mimoun, along with Zátopek who is in agony. One of these will win; the rest are dead or dying. At the sound of the bell Zátopek punches maniacally, leaping the entourage in a single bound, his eyes barely visible under his brow's furrows. He can't shake his attackers! The strategic kick gains him NOTHING, costs him nearly everything.

In 100 meters Chataway sails past him, Schade in his shadow. 200 meters from the medals Chataway, Schade, Mimoun run inside each others shorts. Zátopek is two meters behind them, his speed unequal to their's, his massive strength drained. Schade asserts his right to the lead. Chataway disputs it, taking command heading into the final turn. The crowd is frantic, howling wildly.

Then the howls coalesce. They are screaming Zá-to-PEK! Zá-to-PEK! From deep within, the Czech Locomotive has summonded the courage of the angels! Chataway, who in two years will push Bannister through the 4-minute barrier, leans hard into the turn, balancing himself for a devastating sprint. It never comes. Zátopek springs like Blake's tyger, his jaws slavering, his driving leg pummeling the dirt track. Panicked by Zátopek's fury, Schade and Mimoun blast past Chataway.

It's too late. Zátopek is all over them and away, his upper and lower bodies almost going in different directions as he powers through the turn far wider than any of the others. Chataway, passed by three different men in the space of four footsteps, brushes against the turn's pole and crashes to the track.

Zátopek's face is crucified with noble effort, his eyes closed, his mouth agape. Mimoun claws the air with arm thrusts, as if to grasp Zátopek's singlet and halt him. Schade in third, glares angrily through his eyeglasses, his top speed gaining him naught on Zátopek's courage.

"Zá-to-PEK! Zá-to-PEK! Zá-to-PEK!" The Beast of Prague breaks the tape, after breaking the field, in 14:06.6. Mimoun crosses second in 14:07.4. Schade, third, in 14:08.6. Zátopek takes nearly 9 seconds off Schade's still wet Olympic record. The final lap takes 57.9 seconds, and many years of pain and determination.

Emil Zátopek has his 5K gold. The rest of him is steel.

You can download a video of this race on our Vintage Media page.

In 1955 Zatopek set the last two of his world records, for 15 miles and 25,000 meters. In 1956 he retired from competition after finishing sixth in the marathon at the Melbourne Olympics. He had a hernia operation six weeks before the games.

Emil is credited with revolutionalizing running and training. He developed intense interval workouts that have become the standard today.

In 1998 Emil was awarded the Order of the White Lion, a national honor presented to him by Czech President Vaclav Havel.

During the last year of his life he had spent time in the hospital due to pneumonia and a broken hip. He died November 22, 2000 at age 78 after being admitted to Prague's Military Hospital following a stroke on October 30th. Thousands attended the funeral of the Czech Republic's greatest athlete.

Emil Zátopek - World Record Performances
5,000 Meters
May 30, 1954
10,000 Meters
June 1, 1954
November 1, 1953
Stara Boleslav
August 4, 1950
October 22, 1949
June 11, 1949

Emil Zátopek by Andy Yelenak

Quotes by Emil Zatopek

"Men, today we die a little."
Emil Zatopek at the start of the 1956 Olympic Marathon.


"Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow.
I want to learn to run fast."


"When a person trains once, nothing happens. When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, then he certainly has developed in more ways than physical.
Is it raining? That doesn't matter. Am I tired? That doesn't matter, either.
Then willpower will be no problem."


"A runner must run with dreams in his heart, not money in his pocket."


"To boast of a performance which I cannot beat is merely stupid vanity.
And if I can beat it that means there is nothing special about it."


"What has passed is already finished with.
What I find more interesting is what is still to come."


"We forget our bodies to the benefit of mechanical leisure. We act continuously with our brain, but we no longer use our bodies, our limbs. It is the Africans who possess this vitality, this muscular youth, this thirst for physical action which we are lacking. We have a magnificent motor at our disposal, but we no longer know how to use it."


"There is a great advantage in training under unfavorable conditions. It is better to train under bad conditions, for the difference is then a tremendous relief in a race."


"If you want to win something, run 100 meters.
If you want to experience something, run a marathon."


"You can't climb up to the second floor without a ladder....When you set your aim too high and don't fulfill it, then your enthusiasm turns to bitterness.
Try for a goal that's reasonable, and then gradually raise it."


"After all those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing, the starvation, the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out....I went into the Olympic Village and suddenly there were no more frontiers, no more barriers. Just the people meeting together. It was wonderfully warm. Men and women who had just lost five years of life were back again."
Emil Zatopek, about the 1948 London Olympics.


Emil Zatopek describes his marathon win at the Helsinki Olympics,
"I was unable to walk for a whole week after that, so much did the race take out of me.
But it was the most pleasant exhaustion I have ever known."


"If you come to think of it, you never see deer, dogs and
rabbits worrying about their menus and yet they run much faster than humans."


When asked about his tortured expression during races,
Emil Zatopek said, "It is not gymnastics or ice skating you know."


"There are three things worth living for:
American luxury, Japanese women and Chinese food,"
Emil Zatopek said, joking.


"When I was young, I was too slow. I thought I must learn to run fast by practicing to run fast, so I ran 100 meters fast 20 times. Then I came back, slow,slow,slow. People said, 'Emil, you are crazy. You are training like a sprinter.'"


Emil Zatopek on Interval Training, "Everyone said, 'Emil, you are a fool!'
But when I first won the European Championship, they said: 'Emil, you are a genius!'"


"It's at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys."


"He does everything wrong but win."
Larry Snyder, Ohio State track coach, about Emil Zatopek's contorted style of running.


"Great is the victory, but the friendship is all the greater."

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