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A Winner at the Finish
Leigh Montville
December 04, 2000
Emil Zatopek had a storied distance-running career, but his life wasn't all glory
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December 04, 2000

A Winner At The Finish

Emil Zatopek had a storied distance-running career, but his life wasn't all glory

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Emil Zatopek died last week in Prague of complications from a stroke. Arguably the greatest distance runner in history, the Czechosbvakian native won the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 meters and the marathon at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, a feat that has never been matched. He was 78 years old.

There was nothing else to do, so he ran. The Nazis had taken control of his country in 1939, tanks in the streets, jackboots marching in the dead of night, the routines of normal life altered. Emil Zatopek became a champion mostly because he was bored and hungry.

"There were no dances," he explained on a February day in 1990 in his pleasant little house on a hill on the outskirts of Prague. "Social gatherings were not allowed. Every night there was a curfew at sunset. I didn't have a car. There was no meat to eat most of the time, only vegetables."

He had found his sport late, at almost 19, when the director of the Bata shoe factory where he worked forced him to run a Sunday-afternoon road race. Finishing second in the first race of his life, he wondered how good he could become. The Nazis unknowingly gave him the perfect working conditions. "If there is luxury, there is the danger of degeneration," Zatopek said. "Sit behind the wheel of a car, and a man gains time but loses condition. There was no car. I ran instead. Look at the distance champions today. They are mostly Africans. Runners from underdeveloped countries. They are not softened by luxury."

He ran to work. He ran home. He ran everywhere. When the curtains were drawn at night, windows closed, he ran in place, miles and miles in one spot. He would put his dirty clothes in his bathtub, fill it with water, and run some more on top of the clothes. He was a combination distance runner and washing machine.

There were no coaches to tell him what to do, so he experimented. He ran in combat boots because he thought that would make him feel faster on a race day, with the boots removed. He ran wearing a gas mask to see if it helped control his breathing. He ran a staggering number of miles, more mileage than anyone else was running. He ran up and down stairs. He ran sprints for speed. He ran through all of World War II.

At the 1948 Olympics in London, peace restored, Zatopek, now a member of the new Czechoslovakian army, came away with a gold medal and a wife. The medal was for the 10,000 meters, the first gold ever won by a Czechoslovakian runner; the wife was Dana Ingrova, who had finished seventh in the javelin, also for Czechoslovakia.

In 1952 at Helsinki they became one of the great athletic couples of all time. In the midst of Emil's three gold medals in eight days—the press calling him the Human Locomotive and describing his grim face and a running style that made him look as if he were going to fall down, exhausted, with each step—Dana won a gold in the javelin. Three gold medals for one man! Another for his wife! All this was unprecedented.

"We would work out together," said Dana, who still lives in Prague. "I would say, 'Couldn't we have a normal Sunday afternoon once? A normal picnic?' " "Sure," Emil would reply. And off he would go.

Zatopek retired after the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, where he was sixth in the marathon. Dana retired after finishing a surprising second in Rome in 1960 at age 37. For a while the couple set-tied into an easy life of athletic royalty, legends forever, but that ended in 1968, when the Czechoslovaks tried to institute reforms. Zatopek and his wife were at the front of the movement. They addressed crowds in Wenceslas Square. They signed The Manifesto of 2000 Words, the document of defiance against the Soviet Union. When the Soviet troops and tanks arrived and regained control of the country, the signers of the manifesto were punished.

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