A GOLDEN MAN !
The Olympic Games at Rio 2016 have just ended and the Twitterati are going haywire about India’s performances in the games. Nobody on earth can deny that for a sportsman there can’t be a greater platform than the Olympic podium to show his class to this world. As they say it the proudest of moments, greatest of times the biggest of stages.
Pierre de Coubertin said Holding an Olympic Games means evoking history. The Olympic Games are the quadrennial celebration of the springtime of humanity. While everybody talks of India’s medals I want to take this moment to write about one of my favourite Olympians.
“A lone figure comes into view, barrelling down the home stretch. Gasping with effort.
The crowd stands. And roars with encouragement. Every. Single. Person. From every nation. They drown out the cheers of his fellow countrymen. Like Seabiscuit some two decades earlier, this under dog had become something more.
He crossed the finish line in clear first. He had also broken the world record. His team mates tried to push through the crowd to congratulate him. But by the time they reach the finish line, he’s no longer there. The Jamaican team had hoisted him onto their shoulders and were parading around the infield. To the sound of ecstatic applause.
Who was this man who had captured the hearts and imaginations of millions? Who was so beloved that even his rivals delighted at his accomplishments?
His name was Emil Zatopek.
He was, quite simply, the most passionate runner the world had ever seen and one of the most exemplary human beings I have ever heard of.
How much can one love running you ask?
McDougal writes, “Emil used to run twenty miles each night after drills during his stint in the army. During the winter. In his combat boots. Except when the snow was so deep that he would opt to jog in place on top of his laundry. ”
Sometimes he would do this with his wife (and also Olympic athlete) Dana Zátopková. No she wouldn’t run with him. Her event was the javelin. He would carry her on his back!
So perhaps it comes with no surprise that he was self-coached. And he became quite famous for his brutal training regimens.
He was also well known for his awkward form. The Guardian has this to say about his form. “Watching him run, one commentator said, “He looks like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt.”” Wikipedia had the following to add, “His head would often roll, face contorted with effort, while his torso swung from side to side. He often wheezed and panted audibly while running which earned him the nicknames, “”Emil the Terrible” “The Bouncing Czech” and “the Czech Locomotive”.”
And so he managed to break the Czech record for the 2000, 3000, and 5000 meter runs at twenty two. He won the 10km in the 1948 Olympics.
But the real magic though would come in 1952.
In 1952, the Czechoslovak team was sparse and so Emil had his choice of events. Our balding, self-coached, apartment dwelling, thirty-year-old protagonist chose them all. Like the last time around, Emil was exceptionally friendly and outgoing. They said he made more friends during races than most athletes did during socials. And so by the time night rolled around, his room was literally filled with new friends. And so he often found himself sleeping outside.
According to the Guardian. The night before the 10km, ” an Australian journalist barged into his bedroom at midnight and requested an interview. Zatopek spoke to him for 20 minutes, and then after discovering that the reporter had no hotel of his own, invited him to stay the night.”
He won the 5km and the 10km with new world records. And then at the last moment he signed up for the marathon which he had never run before. The world record holder at the time was a Briton by the name of Jim Peters.
Unbeknownst to Emil, Jim had quit the 10km forever after having lost by a large margin to Emil in the previous Olympics. He had a grudge against Emil (90% sure this was in “Born to Run” but I can’t find my physical copy right now since McDougal was talking about Emil in the section about compassion.) In any case, Jim started the race at a brutal pace. Emil, unsure of marathon strategy decided to simply keep pace with Jim.
Their conversation, as I recall it went something like this (from McDougal). About 15km in, Emil says to Jim, “Excuse me, this is my first marathon, are we going too fast?” Concerned that they were leading the others by a fair distance.
Jim had over exerted himself and hoped Emil would do the same. So he replied, “No. Too slow.” And when Emil asked him to confirm and Jim agreed once more, Emil simply said, “Ok. Thanks.” He took off faster than ever and took his third gold and his third record of 1952. To the sound of millions of sports fans around the world.
Jim never finished that race.
The Guardian tells us that in 1956, Emil injured himself in multiple ways and never fully recovered. Only placing sixth in the marathon in the next cycle. He announced his retirement but stayed active in the sport. His home, like his hotel room during the games being a perpetual open house to his friends, the best athletes in the world who would drop by often. “Gordon Pirie, the Yorkshireman who had modelled himself on Zatopek and raced against him in 1952, described it as “the merriest and gayest home I’ve been in.””
In 1968, Emil was stripped of his rank (colonel), titles and everything else he had of value by the Soviet regime because he had vocally supported the Czechoslovak movement towards democratization.
He was forced into menial and dangerous labors such as collecting rubbish and cleaning uranium mines.
One last story which you can read more about from the Herald Sun.
That year, his friend from Australia and fellow runner Ron Clarke came to visit him. Ron was one of the fastest runners in the world for nearly a decade. According to the Heraldsun, he had set seventeen world records but had never managed to snag a gold medal. He was coming in from another failure, and likely his last in Mexico. When it was time to go, Emil gave Ron a small package and asked him not to open it until he was on the plane.
Ron followed these instructions. He was afraid he was smuggling some sort of message to the West as he opened the small package inside the toilet of the bathroom. Instead he found Emil’s gold medal from the 1952 games for the 10km. Re-engraved with Ron’s name and the year 1968. Ron says he sat on the toilet seat and cried. I did too. I wondered at the magnanimity of character. How could he be willing to do such an act of kindness when he basically had nothing left?
“There is not, and never was, a greater man than Emil Zatopek.”- Ron Clark (perhaps a little biased.)
Emil was eventually pardoned when the Soviet regime fell. He died in 2000 at the age of 78.
He was named The Greatest Runner of All Time by Runner’s World Magazine in 2013.”