Happy Birthday, Emil Zátopek – The story of the greatest distance runner of all time

It has been a weekend of birthdays. On Saturday my brother came to visit the boy, and see for himself the ‘great fat toes’ that have been passed down from our side of the family. He too thought that the boy was definitely ‘more French than English’.

And then yesterday, marked the anniversary of the birthday of Emil Zátopek, who was born in Czechoslovakia on 19th September, 1922.

For long-distance athletes there is before Zátopek and after Zátopek. Fred Wilt, author of How They Train put his impact of his 100 miles a week training programme in context. ‘Before Zátopek, nobody realised it was humanly possible to train this hard. Emil is truly the originator of modern intensive training.’ Between May 1948 and July 1954 he won 38 consecutive 10,000-metres races.

It was at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics that he made his lasting mark when he won gold in the 5,000, 10,000-metres and the Marathon, setting Olympic records in each race. He was the first person since Leonidas of Rhodes, in 164BC, to win the gold medal in all three distance footraces at the same Olympic Games.

How did he do it?

He called it the training of will power. ‘By keeping and increasing his exercise a person can train his will power. Then when he races he can force himself to give a better performance. You can really train your will…you can do anything in your power’, he observed years later. As an abstraction, training the will power was about self-discipline. ‘When a person trains once, nothing happens. When a person forces himself to do a thing 100 times then he certainly has developed. Is it raining? That doesn’t matter. Am I tired? That doesn’t matter either. Then will power is no longer a problem.’

Mrs H often asked who the greatest long-distance runner was it – Nurmi or Abebe Bikila, who won barefoot in Rome.

The question remains whether Steve Prefontaine could have beaten them all. But to my mind, it has to be Zátopek. He alone redefined how to train for long-distance and there is a direct link from his bathroom, where he would train when it was too cold by churning water in the tub, to the modern attempt to break the two-hour marathon.

I wanted to call the boy Emil as a homage to the great man, but Mrs H put her foot down. Instead I have to settle with a photo of the man as the comes crashing through the tape at the end of the marathon and into Olympic history.


About Robin Harvie

I have been running marathons for ten years. But when I couldn't around faster than 3 hours 12 minutes, I decided to see how far I could run before I keeled over. Turns out pretty far. In September 2009 I took on the Spartathlon - 152 miles from Athens to Sparta. Non stop. Why We Run is about that journey and about why we run at all.
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