SI Vault
William Johnson
July 17, 1972
For some champions the Olympics have meant enduring fame, for others they are only the memory of a transcendent instant of glory
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July 17, 1972

After The Golden Moment

For some champions the Olympics have meant enduring fame, for others they are only the memory of a transcendent instant of glory

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In her home a Bechstein grand dominates the living room: next to it is a cello. Gisela Mauermayer plays chamber music twice a week with friends. "I sorely miss the idealism which ought to be an integral part of sport," she said. "Nowadays, competitive sport has become too commercialized, too specialized and, last but not least, a hazard rather than a boon to health. As a zoologist, I can attest from my scientific experience that no animal exists which could sustain the kind of protracted effort nowadays demanded by a high-performance athlete."


Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia ran every step of every race as if there were a scorpion in each shoe. After he won a gold medal in the 10,000 and a silver in the 5,000 in London in 1948, Red Smith wrote: "Witnesses who have long since forgotten the other events still wake up screaming in the dark when Emil the Terrible goes writhing through their dreams, gasping, groaning, clawing at his abdomen in horrible extremities of pain."

In Helsinki in 1952, Emil the Terrible let his grand agonies (which were almost entirely a matter of theatrics) transport him beyond the realm of mere human endurance as he won gold medals in the 5,000, the 10,000 and the marathon. No man had ever done such a thing, and it was the more amazing because Zatopek had never run a marathon in competition before. When it was over he said, "The marathon is a very boring race."

In 1967 Emil Zatopek spoke to a reporter from the London Times about his appreciation of the Olympics: "For me the 1948 Olympics was a liberation of the spirit. After all those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing, the starvation, the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out. I went into the Olympic Village in 1948 and suddenly there were no more frontiers, no more barriers. Just the people meeting together. It was wonderfully warm. Men and women who had lost five years of life were back again." For many years Emil Zatopek was a colonel in the Czech army and the toast of the Communist Party. Crowds used to gather around him in the street. Then in 1968 he signed the 2,000 Words Manifesto. After Russian tanks stamped out the rebellion, he was expelled from the party, transferred to the reserves and given a pittance for a pension. He worked for a time as a well-tester, but he lost that job. He became a garbage collector, but people recognized him at his work. They helped him carry the garbage cans. This was viewed as a symbol of solidarity against the regime, so he was fired. Then last year he publicly recanted his liberal views. While this incurred the ire of the Czech public, it prompted Party Boss Gust?v Hus?k to say that he held "Zatopek in esteem as a man of character." Zatopek is now working for the Czech Geological Research Institute on oil-deposit research. He says it is an outdoor occupation that allows him to go home to Prague once a fortnight.


Harold Abrahams is 72, a dignified retired London lawyer. In the 1924 Olympics in Paris, he won the 100-meter dash, defeating Charles Paddock, then the World's Fastest Human. "The medal had a bearing on my career, of course," he said. "I was a celebrity. People knew me through my victory, but that was not the reason I tried to win. My brothers were both well-known athletes and, eventually, I wanted to show I could do better than they had. When I won, there wasn't any great surge of patriotism in me, though I was pleased for Britain.

"But another reason why I hardened myself to win was that there was a certain amount of anti-Semitism in those days. Certainly, now, I didn't run in the Olympics to win for all of the Jews. I ran for myself. But I felt I had become something of an outsider, you know. That may have helped."


He will have a seat of honor at the Munich Olympics, but it will be a sad and futile tribute of the type that healthy men pay to the cripples whose still, gleaming wheels line the sidelines at athletic contests.

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