Emil Zatopek - The Czech Locomotive

TimTim Sharma
Modified 08 May 2013


Last week, we said hello to the legendary Paavo Nurmi, and I would be only stating a fact by saying that this man has inspired and spurred on millions of runners, athletes, sports enthusiasts and people around the world. He has also inspired many legends. One of them happens to be a personal favourite, Emil Zatopek, also known as “The Czech Locomotive” and ” The bouncing Czech”. The man whose words are definitely the most quoted when it comes to the sport of marathon, he is the one who whispered the famous words in favour of it:

“If you want to win something, run 100 meters.
If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”

Zatopek was awarded the title of ‘Czech Sporting Legend of the Century’ in November 2000. He made not just the Czech people proud but the entire world as well, not just with his performances in races but also his positive outlook, warm demeanor and gentle disposition.

Zatopek was born on 19th September, 1922, and was the sixth child of his family. He always wanted to be a teacher, but the fact that he performed miserably in academics made this a hard career to pursue. At the age of 16, he started working in a Bata shoe factory as an intern. The company used to have an annual race to promote sports with employees. Zatopek managed to successfully avoid participating in this race until he was 18. He tried pulling a sick day through this one as well, but his supervisor sent him to the doctor, who in turn gave him an all clear sign, insisting that he was indeed hale and hearty.

There were about a hundred people at the start line. Zatopek was furious at having been forcefully made to participate in this race, so he decided to “show them”. And boy did he show them, coming in at second. Obviously, at this point even he realised that he had some talent, and this started the career of one of the legends of distance running.


Zatopek was not in a position to have a coach, so he studied Nurmi and created a training technique loosely based on that of Nurmi’s. He worked on and honed the concept of what we now call interval training.

I love the way he used to put across his views – in a simple but emphatic way. I would like to quote him here to reflect this sincerity:

“Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I want to learn to run fast.

“When a person trains once, nothing happens. When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, then he certainly has developed in more ways than physical. Is it raining? That doesn’t matter. Am I tired? That doesn’t matter, either. Then willpower will be no problem.”

So he would train. He would train when Czechoslovakia was under the Nazis’ rule. He joined the army. He would train through the sun, the rain, and the hail. He would add weights to his legs and run through the weather. He created a regime which clocked up to 25 miles a day and included interval training, tempo runs and sprints all in one day. The day Czechslovakia became a republic and people hit the streets to celebrate, Zatopek was celebrating by training on the streets.

The year 1946 was the year Zatopek made his debut in the international racing circuit. Stuck in Prague, with the inter-allied meet happening at Berlin and no way to get there, Zatopek cycled the 226 mile journey to participate and then won the race.  At the Olympics in 1948, he won the gold in the 10K and a silver in the 5K. This was when his awkward running style was noticed. Zatopek did not make running look good, period! The one thing that he had going for him was that he had a forefoot strike, and like Nurmi, strategised his races with the help of a stopwatch. Other than that, he was the black sheep of the running community. He made each step of every race look like he was going to die, not naturally but by being strangulated. His head was never steady, it would bob up and down and from side to side. His running form was all over the place and definitely nothing to be proud about. When asked about it, Zatopek was cheeky enough to say: “It is not gymnastics or ice skating, you know.” Straight up honest is how he was. Zatopek also met his future wife at these games. They were married some two-odd months later on their shared birthday, and lived the proverbial happily-ever-after life.


The Olympics in 1952 was the year Zatopek created history – and how? Of course, he was the favourite for the 10K race which he won the gold in. He also vindicated himself when he won the 5K gold that he had missed out on by a metre in 1948. But the clincher was yet to come. The Czech team did not have a contender for the 42.2K full marathon. So superman Zatopek came to the rescue and was a last minute entry into the race. He had never run a full marathon before and had no clue as to the strategy to adopt. So, he thought – shadow the leader until the last few miles and then give it your all. Jim Peters from Britain was the world record holder and the hottest contender for the gold at the full marathon. So, Zatopek walked up to him at the start line and introduced himself. Once the race started, he stuck to his plan. About a quarter of the way into the race, Zatopek decided to ask Peters how he thought the race was progressing. Peters jokingly mentioned that he believed the pace was not fast enough. Zatopek took this seriously and picked up the pace. He continued with the same vigour till he reached the finish line, completing his first ever full marathon in two hours and 23 minutes, thereby creating a new world record and winning the Olympic gold.

Between the years of 1948-54, he won 38 consecutive 10Ks in the international circuit, including 11 in 1949 alone. He was the first man ever to run the 10K in less than 29 minutes, and the 20K in one hour. He set 18 world records over each race category between the 5K and the 42.2K, and won 4 Olympic golds and 1 silver in the same time span. He retired in 1956 after his gruelling training regime got the better of him and sent him to the hospital.

He was known to be a chatty and gregarious individual, and was called by many as the most beloved Czech athlete ever. He learnt 6 different languages and was known to make more friends during a race than most athletes would while socialising. He was a slight and scrawny man with a huge personality and strong opinion, which he shared with conviction. He was the first to mention that the full marathon was a ‘boring race’. He was stripped off his rank of a colonel in the army when he openly refuted their communist policies and strategies. He was sent to work for 7 years in the Uranium mines. Even then, his positive spirit screamed out that the earth was just as beautiful from the inside as it was from the outside. All athletes used to visit him at his home in Prague, and it was a shrine of sorts.

One of the most heart-warming stories was when Australian athlete Ron Clarke came to visit him in Prague. The year was 1966, and Clarke was a great admirer of Zatopek. His race event was the 10K and the Olympic medal had been eluding him for a while. His spirit seemed to be ebbing away. After spending a splendid day with Zatopek, Zatopek gave him a small present as a farewell gift at the airport, asking him to open it once on the plane. When Clarke opened the container, it was Zatopek’s 10K Olympic gold with Clarke’s name and the current day’s date inscribed on it.

The government issued a public apology to him, and he then went on to live the rest of his days in Prague with his wife. He passed away in November 2000 at the ripe age of 78, fighting pneumonia and a broken hip. What this man has given to running is indescribable. He has displayed the athlete’s spirit, and has shown his competitors love and friendship. He was an example of not just a legendary sports superstar but a genuinely good and kind man. A man truly loved for his spirit, dedication and sincerity to his sport and his fellow human beings.

Published 29 Apr 2013
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