The Human Locomotive

The untidy runner: Emil Zatopek

In recent years, many athletes have been praised for their range over the different events that they participate in. Athletes like Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana, the Netherland’s Sifan Hassan and Great Britain’s Mo Farah have left sports fans marvelling at their abilities over a range of distances. Nonetheless, no one has revolutionised the running world for many years or convinced the running world of such range of greatness as Emil Zatopek. Emil Zatopek, till this day, remains the only athlete to complete an unlikely trio of long distance wins at a single major championships or games.

Like many people who came into running through unexpected circumstances, Zatopek’s story is an interesting one. After leaving school, a young Zatopek began working at the famous Bata shoe factory in Zlin. He was happy to be given the apprenticeship and was quite content with the work. The apprenticeship also gave him the opportunity to continue his education with night classes. On the second Sunday in May of each year, the company organised a mass participation race. Zatopek was ordered by his tutor to take part in the race against his wishes. He tried to get out of this by claiming to be ill, but his tutor sent him to a doctor who confirmed that Zatopek was fine. Now, Zatopek was 18 and wasn’t happy that he was still being treated like a child after years of arriving Zlin to work at Bata. With this anger in him, he went into the race ready to smash it as the adult he thought he was. Zatopek came second. He came second in a field of 100 participants. Clearly, he had the natural talent for this and this was the start of his running journey.

He was then invited to join the local athletic club. He took interest in running and reading about the successes of Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish great of long distance running. He was then able to combine what he read with his own ideas to create a personal training programme that made use of gruelling interval training.

For his first international race, Zatopek travelled to Berlin by bike as he couldn’t find an alternative way to get there. Like many inexperienced runners do when excited from racing, he went out too fast in the race’s early stages. Despite the 220-mile cycle activity in his legs, he was still able to win the race. 

Zatopek was later recruited into the Czech army. In the army, he was gradually given more time to do his training. By 1948, his workouts included ten twenty 400m repeats, sandwiched between two sets of five 200m repeats. Seeing that his running times improved with this workout, he increased the loading of his workouts. He eventually pushed himself to do a hundred 400m repeats in a day, fifty in the morning and the other fifty in the afternoon. He would also add in fast mile runs to his total daily workouts. Thinking about this, it dawns on one that he was basically doing a broken up marathon on a daily basis. Even now, many experienced runners looking at this are likely to say, “This is crazy,” as the volume per day alone is what some committed people do in a week. 

With the 1948 Olympic Games approaching, he set his sights on competing in the 5000m race. He, however, ran his first 10,000 two months before the games and realised he wasn’t far off the times of the best athletes in the event. This spurred him to compete over both distances. In recent years, similar happenings have occurred where an athlete known as a 5000m runner decides to do the 10,000 and ends up doing amazingly well.
First to be done in London was the 10,000m on the first day of the Olympic program. Zatopek planned to run at a world-record pace during the race. With help from his coach, who signalled if he was on target or not by raising up a white or red flag, Zatopek was able to smash his first event and win by 48 seconds ahead of the next placed runner.

A few days later, in the 5000m final, it was clear that Zatopek was not having it all easy. The race track was wet and muddy from the rain, which was falling. He trailed well behind the race leader for parts of the race. He eventually found an extra gear towards the end of the race as the crowd cheered him on with rhythmic shouts of “Za-to-pek, Za-to-pek”. On the final lap, he closed the gap on Gaston Reiff of Belgium to finish 0.2 seconds behind him and win the silver medal.

Between 1949 and 1951, he was very successful, competing and winning 69 long distance races. He set a world record in the 10,000m and bettered that record two more times before the next Olympic games. 
His buildup for the 1952 Olympics was not very smooth. He got injured in a skiing accident the previous year and also fell ill leading into the Games. Even with this backdrop, he easily retained his title in the 10,000m race. In the 5000m, he made his decisive move on the final bend leading into the home straight and went past Alain Mimoun, Herbert Schade, and Chris Chataway and moved into the lead and then upgraded his silver medal from the previous Olympics to a gold medal. Zatopek then decided to compete in the marathon for the first time in his life, and what better place to try the event than at the Olympics. The thought of this happening right now is even way too crazy to really imagine. He hung on to Jim Peters, the world record holder in the event as the race progressed for the marathon. Zatopek ran up to Peters’ shoulder about halfway through the race and asked him if the pace was too fast. Peters’ told him that it was not fast enough. Although Peters’ said this, he only meant it as banter and was not ready for what happened next. Zatopek, genuinely believing the pace was too slow, moved faster and eventually disappeared from Peters’ view. Zatopek went on to win the race by over two minutes from the next placed athlete. He won the 10,000m on the 20th of July, the 5000 on the 24th, and the marathon on the 27th. All of his wins were done in Olympic record times. 

This treble is one that is unlikely to be repeated ever again. It is part of what makes him one of the greatest distance runners of all time. Though there are athletes with such amazing range over the different distance events, it would be ridiculous to expect any of them to win medals (of any colour) in these three events at major championships now. Most likely, a choice would have to be made on which one or two of the events to concentrate on for the games. 

Another thing that many journalists, coaches and running fans found interesting about Zatopek was his running style. Zatopek looked quite untidy when he ran. His running form is something that many consider to be an inefficient use of his body; his torso waved from side to side as his head rolled with a facial expression that spelt absolute death. This particular style of running, in which noisy snorts accompanied his grimaces of suffering, earned him the nickname of ‘The Human Locomotive’. Zatopek remarked that there was no need to smile or make a wonderful impression on the judges with running as it wasn’t gymnastics or ice skating. Although his form was untidy, Zatopek beat runners who were described as more efficient in their running form. Though his movements were not beautiful, they didn’t stop him from dominating and setting more world records in both the 10,000m and 5000m. He broke the 10,000m record two more times in 1953 and 1954 and also broke the 5000m record in 1954.

Though he tried to defend his Marathon title at the 1956 Olympics, he could only manage a sixth place finish after suffering setbacks leading to the games. He almost missed the games and was hospitalised for six weeks because of injuries he picked up in training. Zatopek, already over 35, probably over-trained himself in a bid to succeed over those who were now already beating and challenging him. The following year, he retired from competitions.

Younger athletes were emerging with workouts that produced results without being as gruelling as Zatopek’s. Zatopek trained in the dark; he trained in the snow; he trained in army boots; he trained with weights, even with his wife on his back, and learned to endure pain. Now, it may come as no surprise to some that Zatopek’s times were being beaten, especially in the shorter 5000m by emerging runners. Today, training programs will usually not advocate for a training volume that is significantly more than 100 miles per week for 5000m specialists and may also be more concerned with recovery than Zatopek may have been in his active days. 

Zatopek was an outspoken supporter of the 1968 Prague Spring and yet an influential figure in the Communist Party. After the Soviet forces bloodily clamped down on the calls for democracy, Zatopek was kicked out of the party. He was also stripped of his rank as colonel and kicked out of the army. He was exiled and made to spend seven years working in menial roles. During this period, he was rarely able to see his friends and family as he worked at mines prospecting for natural resources. 

After years of living away from his family, the communist government allowed him to move back to Prague and work a lowly job in the Czechoslovak Union of Physical Education in 1977. After the Velvet Revolution towards the end of 1989, Zatopek was rehabilitated by President Vaclav Havel in March 1990.

Zatopek remained a prominent figure in the sport and helped establish the Prague Marathon in 1995. Aged 78, he passed away in 2000 after being admitted to Prague’s Military Hospital following a stroke on the 30th of October. His funeral was attended by international sports figures and also the Czech prime minister. He was later inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012. Many consider him to still be the greatest distance runner that ever lived.


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