The story of the Czechoslovak runner Emil Zátopek is a tale from athletics’ age of innocence. Without the aid of qualified coaches, state-of-the-art equipment or ‘performance-enhancing’ drugs, Emil Zátopek set no fewer than 18 world records over distances between 5,000 and 30,000 metres with a style memorably described as that of ‘a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt’: all eccentricity above the waist, all efficiency below it. Brought up in poverty, he ate when he could and what he could, and treated beer as a prototype isotonic drink.
His sporting career was set in the brief period of dominance of his specialist events enjoyed by runners from behind the Iron Curtain, an interregnum which lay between the era of the Flying Finns and the decades when the mantle of the so-called ‘kings of distance’ passed to runners from the Maghreb, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Zátopek devised high-mileage routines, running constant repetitions over short distances, sometimes training in army boots, in the snow and the dark, learning to endure high levels of pain. When his instinct told him to slow his pace, he increased it. Such new and unorthodox methods were alien to English rivals such as Christopher Chataway, though copied by others such as Gordon Pirie. Zátopek raced frequently and indiscriminately, both home and abroad, rather than concentrating like modern athletes only on major events. His popularity was enhanced by his generosity towards his opponents, whom he would encourage in mid-race,often in their own language. The rhythmic tri-syllabic cry ‘Zá-to-pek’ echoed round the stadia of Europe.
Of course his records have long since been broken. His main achievement — incapable of emulation — was the winning of a triple crown of gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in the 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres and the marathon — a success made even more remarkable by the fact that he’d never run a marathon before.