At the Opening Ceremony of the 1952 Summer Olympics the Olympic torch was brought into the Helsinki Olympiastadion by legendary Finnish long distance runner Paavo Nurmi, with his fellow legendary athletic compatriot Hannes Kolehmainen actually igniting the main cauldron. Each one of these so-called “Flying Finns” had excelled in distances ranging from the 5,000 metres through to the marathon. Therefore it was poetic justice in Helsinki that one of the most iconic performances in Olympic history was that given by the Czech long-distance runner Emil Zatopek. Zatopek entered these games with one gold medal; at the end of them he added three more plus perhaps more importantly showed the spirit and honour of a truly Olympic champion.

Emil Zatopek was born in Kopřivnice, Czechoslovakia on September 19, 1922 and didn’t start running competitively until the age of 19, when he (reluctantly) ran in a race sponsored by the shoe factory in which he worked. His second place encouraged him and a local athletics club to make further efforts in developing his running, and by 1943 he held the Czech 1500 metres record. By the age of 22 he had broken the Czech national records for the 2000 metres, 3000 metres and 5000 metres and then at the end of World War Two he was drafted into the army where he was given the opportunity to concentrate on his running. With no coach he developed his own system of interval training, influenced by the great Paavo Nurmi and the Swede Arne Andersson. Running alone in every weather type, on athletic tracks or cross country he went to the 1948 Olympics as an entrant in the 5000 metres and 10,000 metres. He ended the first Olympics after the Second World War with a gold in the 10,000 metres and a silver in the 5000 metres, winning fame and respect for his efforts. It was in Wembley Stadium at the 1948 London Olympics that the world first heard an Olympic crowd chant ‘Zat-o-pek, Zat-o-pek!” as the anguished face of the Czech runner circled round the athletics track.

Whilst the medals he won in 1948 were brilliant achievements for the Czech lieutenant, it was four years later when Zatopek emerged from mere greatness into Olympic legend status. Between the London and Helsinki Olympics Zatopek won 38 10,000 metres races plus every 5000 metres event he entered. In 1951 after a delayed start to his season due to a skiing accident he broke the world record in the one hour event, breaking the 20 kilometre barrier. He held the world record over 10,000 metres (29 minutes 2.6 seconds) and was undoubtedly the favourite for Helsinki in this distance. On a personal note he had also married Czech javelin thrower Dana Ingrová after the 1948 Summer Olympics, and both Zatopeks were going to Helsinki hoping to bring back gold for Czechoslavakia.

The first event for Zatopek in Helsinki was the 10,000 metres. Held on the first day of the athletics program there were 33 competitors from 21 countries. Zatopek was the world record holder and favourite, however Gordon Pirie (GBR), Aleksandr Anufriev (URS) and the so-called “Zatopek’s Sahdow’ Alain Mimoun (FRA) were credible opponents. Aamzingly the night before the gold medal race an Australian journalist entered Zatopek’s room around midnight; instead of being hustled out by a reasonably angry Zatopek, the Czech champion calmly and with great dignity was interviewed by the journalist for twenty minutes. When Zatopek discovered the reporter had no bed for the night he offered to share his room with the Australian. The next day after one lap the Australian Les Parry had the lead in the 10,000 metres, but this evaporated when the Soviet Anufriev took over. If Zatopek was wearied by the previous night’s activities he failed to show it. With 2000 metres completed Zatopek too the lead and was never headed. Mimoun stayed true to his nickname and up until the 8000 metres mark was running a strong second. Yet Zatopek surged away at that point, completing the last five laps well in front and raced to cross the finish line first. The gap between him and Mimoun the silver medallist was over 15 seconds or about 90 metres, with Anufriev third. Zatopek had won his second gold medal in his career and successfully defended his 10,000 metres title from London. It was also the first in his Helsinki saga which made Emil Zatopek a legend.

When asked if he would compete in the 5000 metres Zatopek replied “The marathon contest won’t be for a long time yet, so I must simply do something until then.” This self-deprecating reply and his behaviour in his heat of the 5000 metres belied his ability and desire to win the event he had come second in four years earlier. Two days after his 10,000 metres gold Zatopek lined up for his qualifying heat relaxed and keeping in mind the first five from each of the three heats would progress on the next day’s final. Chatting with his competitors as he ran Zatopek finished in third with Anufriev winning the heat. Zatopek demonstrated his immense personal friendliness after the race bu presenting the fourth place runner Les Perry his training suit.

Going into the final on July 24th 1952 Zatopek was again to race Mimoun, Anufriev, Pirie and Perry from the 10,000 metres, plus fancied German runner Herbert Schade and Pirie’s compatriot Chris Chataway. Zatopek tried to advise Schadeon the starting line how the German could approach the final, however Schade failed to appreciate this help to his later regret. With about a lap and a half to go a group of six runners were poised for the final surge. Zatopek, Pirie, Chataway, Mimoun, Schade and the 1948 gold medallist, Belgian Gaston Reiff. Reiff dropped out, unexpectedly leaving the track. Then Pirie fell behind, and as the bell lap began the red shirted figure of Zatopek was in front of his three main rivals.

His face contorted in rictures of agony (later saying “I was not talented enough to run and smile at the same time.”) Zatopek surprisingly lost the lead in the back straight. With 300 metres to go and the crowd yelling “Zat-o-pek!” the Czech runner was in fourth and now out of the medals. Then coming into the final curve Zatopek surged, showing his unique ability to time his pace at the most effective time. Passing Mimoun, Schade and Chataway Zatopek hit the lead. Chataway clipped the concrete bordering the inner track and tripped, effectively ending his race. Meanwhile Mimoun and Schade faded, and as the finish line came closer it was Zatopek first and the Frenchman and German fighting for the minor medals. Mimoun was running the race of his life but his nickname of ‘Zatopek’s Shadow’ struck again; the gold went to the Czech now-triple gold medallist and Mimoun took his third silver behind Zatopek. Schade took bronze and Pirie passed his British team mate Chataway to come fourth. Zatopek had won a remarkable long distance double at the Summer Olympics; the last time anyone had won both the 5000 metres and 10,000 metres golds at the same games was at Stockholm in 1912, when Helsinki cauldron-lighter Hannes Kolehmainen had taken the golds in the two longest track races.

Later that same day Dana Zatopek won the gold medal in the women’s javelin. It was a golden day for Czechoslavakia and the Zatopeks and when Emil was asked if he would try to win the marathon he replied:

“At present the score of the contest in the Zatopek family is 2-1. This result is too close. To restore some prestige I will try to improve on it – in the marathon race.”
That chance came three days after the 5000 metres final. Zatopek had never run a competitive marathon before, and the favourite was British runner Jim Peters. Peters paradoxically owed his status in the marathon after taking to the event when he was beaten by Zatopek in the 1948 London final of the 10,000 metres. With a recent time of 2 hours 20 minutes and 42 seconds the British runner had established a time about five minutes better than all his prospective competitors in Helsinki. This included the marathon virgin, Emil Zatopek.

At the start Zatopek sought out Jim Peters, looking to the favourite to help him pace the longest event for male athletes at the Helsinki Olympics. Looking for Peter’s number (187) the Czech marathon debutant found the British world record holder and asked “Hello are you Peters?” Jim Peters said yes and Zatopek then said “I am Emil Zatopek from Czechoslovakia, I am very pleased to see you.” The fastest man over the marathon distance and the man who had already won two gold medals in Helsinki then set themselves for the climax of their relative Olympic careers.

From the beginning Peters set a fast pace, with the first five kilometres completed in 15 minutes 43 seconds, then the 10 kilometre mark was passed in 31 minutes 55 seconds. Zatopek and Swedish runner Gustaf Janssen challenged Peters after the 15 kilometre mark and it was then Zatopek asked Peters “Jim, the pace. Is it good enough?” Peters replied “Pace too slow”, even though he was feeling the effects of his efforts so far. Zatopek considered this reply and then said “You say too slow. Are you sure the pace is too slow?” Peters again said yes, at which point Zatopek shrugged his shoulders, before making his move. Then Zatopek made his move nearing the 20 kilometres. Jansson followed with Peters falling behind, so that with roughly half the race marathon to go Zatopek and the Swede were equal first (1.04.27) and Peters third (1.04.37). Jansson took a slice of lemon at a feed station and Zatopek noted this, thinking that as the Swede was running well when the Czech came to the next feed station Zatopek would take two lemons. Meanwhile Peters was fading fast, and at the turn for the last half of the marathon Zatopek grabbed the lead, without taking any lemons to suck. Jansson faded as well and by the 35 kilometre point he was over a minute behind Zatopek. Peters had collapsed exhausted after 32 kilometres, so he was no longer a threat. The Argentinian Reinaldo Gorno improved his position from fourth after 30 kilometres so that by 40 kilometres he was second behind Zatopek, with Jansson third. The incredible strength and ability of Emil Zatopek was about to bring him the amazing troika of gold medals at the one Olympics; 5000 metres, 10,000 metres and the marathon.

The Helsinki Olympiastadion rang once last time with the chant ‘Zat-o-pek! Zat-o-pek!’ as their hero ran the last lap of the marathon. The gap between gold and silver ended up to be over two and a half minutes, with Zatopek crossing the line in 2 hours 23 minutes and 3.2 seconds. The Jamaican 4×100 metres realy team hoisted Zatopek on their shoulders chairing him around as the ecstatic crowd gave him a standing ovation. Then as Gorno crossed for his silver medal Zatopek came over to the Argentinian, greeting him with a slice of orange, with Jansson collecting the bronze. After his victory Zatopek said:

“I was unable to walk for a whole week after that (the marathon), so much did the race take out of me. But it was the most pleasant exhaustion I have ever known.”

So it was when the Helsinki Olympics finished the most renowned athlete from any nation was the Czech Emil Zatopek, increasing his career Olympic medal tally to 4 golds and one silver. Greatly loved by his competitors as well, the quality of Zatopek not just as an Olympian but as a man was shown not just by his victories in Helsinki, but also by the way he went about securing them. Finally, with one last generous act Emil Zatopek soared further into the stratosphere of Olympic legends. In 1968 Australian 10,000 metre world record holder Ron Clarke met with Zatopek after the Mexico City Olympics. On the point of leaving Prague after his visit, Clarke was walked through customs by Zatopek. Shaking hands in a final farewell Zatopek passed a small package to the Australian, which Clarke took unopened onto his flight. Worried that he was carried some smuggled information from Zatopek (who signed the manifesto supporting the so-called “Prague Spring” of 1968), Clarke only opened his package when the flight was well outside Czechoslovakian airspace. Inside was Zatopek’s 10,000 metres gold medal from Helsinki. With this act of true sporting friendship Emil Zatopek’s words to Ron Clarke as he had got on the plane made sense to the Australian; “Because you deserved it”. If anyone can be said to have received the gift of Olympic greatness, then it must be Emil Zatopek. Because he too deserves it.