Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, was born on September 19, 1922 in Zlin. He was the son of a laborer and the sixth of eight children.
Zatopek left home at 16 to work in a shoe factory. During that time in Communist nations, many clubs, businesses, and factories had sports teams. Zatopek ran for the factory. He actually didn’t want to compete. He remembers, “The director of the factory said one day that there would be a race through the city on Sunday, and that I should run. I did not want to go. I did not want to go. I told him I had a cold. I told him I had a bad knee. He made me go to the company doctor. The doctor said I was fine. I had to run. I surprised myself. I came in second.”
Zatopek proved he had the speed and commitment to become a star, and was chosen to get special training. He chose to concentrate on distance running.
Zatopek was a small man, only five ft. eight in. and 145 pounds. He had an unusual style. His head rolled from side to side as he ran, his arms waved everywhere, and his face looked like he was in pain. Red Smith, a newspaper columnist at the 1952 Games, described that Zatopek ran “like a man with a noose around his neck…on the verge of strangulation…his hatchet face crimson, his tongue rolled out.” Zatopek said “Other athletes used to come to me and say, ‘Emil it is horrible to see you run. Track and field is culture of natural movement, not this.’ But I was interested in my finish, not in being beautiful.”
Zatopek ran at night with a flashlight and weighty boots. He also had a unique training routine. He ran 400m in race pace six times, than ran 100m. Then, instead of sitting and resting, he would jog. To train for the 10,000m, he would run 200m five times, 400m 20 times, then 200m five times again. As always, he jogged between runs.
Some of Zatopek’s prime years were spent not competing due to World War II, but he still became an Olympic legend. In 1948 he won the 10,000 and won silver in the 5,000 by .02 second after coming from behind 30 yards.
In the 1952 Olympics, he won the 5,000m and 10,000m. In the 5,000m, he was in fourth place with 200 meters left, but sprinted to win by four meters. His success influenced him to run the marathon, which he had never won.
He stayed close the “experts,” Jim Peters of Great Britain and Gustav Jansson of Sweden, but found their pace too slow and won the race in Olympic record time: 2:23:04. Zatopek recalled the race as “the easiest of my career.”
The Olympics were not Zatopek’s only triumph. He set 20 world records in his career and became the first man to run 20 kilometers in an hour in 1951. From 1948 to 1954, he won 38 straight 10,000m races.
Zatopek was also a colonel in the Czech army and was a national hero after his gold medals.
When the USSR invaded his country, he openly criticized them, was consequently stripped of his rank and made to do menial jobs, such as cleaning toilets. He and his wife Dana, who won the javelin throw in 1952, actually once lived in a trailer. He died on November 20, 2000.
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