Emil Zátopek was the sixth child in a modest family. Aged 16, he began working in a Bata shoe factory in Zlín. Zátopek says that “One day, the factory sports coach, who was very strict, pointed at four boys, including me, and ordered us to run in a race. I protested that I was weak and not fit to run, but the coach sent me for a physical examination, and the doctor said that I was perfectly well. So I had to run, and when I got started, I felt I wanted to win. But I only came in second. That was the way it started.” Emil Zátopek finished second out of the field of 100. After that point, he began to take a serious interest in running. He joined the local athletic club, where he developed his own training program, modelled on what he had read about the great Finnish Olympian Paavo Nurmi. A mere four years later, in 1944, Zátopek broke the Czechoslovak records for 2,000, 3,000 and 5,000 metres. At the end of the war he joined the Czechoslovak Army, where he was gradually given more time for his gruelling training regimen. Zátopek was selected for the Czechoslovak national team for the 1946 European Championships in Oslo and finished fifth in the 5,000 m in 14:25.8, breaking his own Czechoslovak record of 14:50.2. At the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, Zátopek won the 10,000 m and finished second behind Gaston Reiff from Belgium during a driving rainstorm in the 5,000 m. The following year Zátopek broke the 10,000 m world record twice, and went on to better his own record three times over the next four seasons. He also set records in the 5,000 m (1954), 20,000 m (twice in 1951), one-hour run (twice in 1951), 25,000 m (1952 and 1955), and 30,000 m (1952). He won the 5,000 m and 10,000 m at the 1950 European Championships and the 10,000 m at the next European Championships, ahead of Jozsef Kovacs and Frank Sando.
At the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Emil Zátopek won gold in the 5,000 m, 10,000 m, and the marathon, breaking Olympic records in each event. Zátopek is the only person to win these three long distance events in the same Olympic games. His victory in the 5,000 m came after a ferocious last lap in 57.5 seconds, during which he went from fourth place to first in the final turn, passing first Alain Mimoun of France, then Herbert Schade of West Germany and finally Chris Chataway of Great Britain. Emil Zátopek’s final medal came when he decided at the last minute to compete in the marathon for the first time in his life, and won. His strategy for the marathon was simple: he raced alongside Jim Peters, the British world-record holder. After a punishing first fifteen kilometres in which Peters knew he had overtaxed himself, Zátopek asked the Englishman what he thought of the race thus far. The astonished Peters told the Czech that the pace was “too slow,” in an attempt to slip up Zátopek, at which point Zátopek simply accelerated. Peters did not finish, while Zátopek won the race and set an Olympic record. Zátopek attempted to defend his marathon gold medal in 1956; however, he suffered a groin injury while training and was hospitalized for six weeks. He resumed training the day after leaving the hospital, but never quite regained his form. He finished sixth in the marathon, which was won by his old rival and friend Alain Mimoun. Zátopek retired from competition in 1957.
Emil Zátopek’s running style was distinctive and very much at odds with what was considered to be an efficient style at the time. 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 of “Emil the Terrible” or the “Czech Locomotive”. When asked about his tortured facial expressions, Zátopek is said to have replied that “It isn’t gymnastics or figure skating, you know.” In addition he would train in any weather, including snow, and would often do so while wearing heavy work boots as opposed to special running shoes. He was always willing to give advice to other runners. One example he often gave was always to be relaxed and to help ensure that while running, gently touch the tip of your thumb with the tip of your index or middle finger. Just making that slight contact would ensure that arms and shoulders remained relaxed. Emil Zátopek died in Prague on 22 November 2000 at the age of 78, from the complications of a stroke.
- September, 19, 1922
- Kopřivnice, Czechoslovakia
- November, 22, 2000
- Prague, Czech Republic
Cause of Death
- Walachian Open-Air Museum
- Rožnov pod Radhoštěm, Czech Republic