Emil Zátopek!

To start of the series of Featured Runner of the Week, I chose to look back to a runner from recent history. It seems fitting to pick Emil Zátopek as he exemplified all the great qualities not only as a runner but as a human being! Adored by crowds and fellow competitors alike, Zátopek, with his very awkward technique accomplished what no other runner has done, 3 Olympic gold medals at 3 very different distances at the same time.

Featured Runner – Emil Zátopek

I first learned of Emil Zátopek from Christopher McDougall’s cult running book “Born To Run”! There McDougall focused on the more spiritual side of running, and gave Zatopek as an example of a runner being able to accomplish great feats as a result of his love not only for running, but for his fellow man. Zátopek would not only be cheered on by his countrymen but by those running against him. During races he would actually engage in conversations – many found this odd and entertaining at the same time. So how did Zátopek manage to achieve what he did? Simply through hard work and perseverance. I’ve read somewhere, that the longer the distance, the less talent it takes to be the best – it’s all about the effort.

What Made Zátopek Different?

Emil did not start running until his late teens. He never really liked the activity but once he started, he began enjoying it and started getting better and better. In a way, he was a pioneer. Unlike the majority of runners of his time, Zátopek did not focus on building endurance over a certain distance, he worked on the speed over short distances. Today, we know this as interval training. However, not many people take interval training to the extremes Zátopek took it to. At one point, he would do over one hundred 400 metre sprints (between which he jogged). That is a marathon distance – sprinting!!! He is also known for inventing the final sprint. During mid and long distance runs, runners would slow down near the end. Not Zátopek, he would unleash all his strength and speed on the final stretch.

The Crowning Moment

The 1952 Helsinki Olympics will be the ones Zátopek will be most know for. Coming from Czechoslovakia – a nation not well known for their athletics, Emil Zátopek managed to be entered not only in the 5000m and 10000m events but also the Marathon – an event he had never participated in before. He wins both gold medals for the 5k and 10k! The marathon is the last event. Contrary to his usual running style at these distances, where his head is bobbing up and down, his facial expressions show great pain and his running technique looks faltered, in the marathon, Zátopek looks relaxed, even smiles. Near the midway point, Emil asks the current world record holder if the pace is not too fast. Trying to confuse his rival, Zátopek is told, that on the contrary, the pace is too slow. Not giving it another thought, Emil Zátopek leaves his rivals behind and wins his third gold, beating the record by over 6 minutes!

Much more can be learned about Emil Zátopek from various articles, webpages and books. Here are a few links that you may enjoy:

A book by Bob Phillips available on Amazon:

Feature in The Guardian about Top 50 Olympic Moments:

Videos and photos of Emil Zátopek on the official Olympic website:

Some videos on YouTube: