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Dr. J. on Running

Emil Zatopek (1922-2000)

The Passing of a Legend

Published November 27, 2000 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

Emil Zatopek, arguably the greatest distance runner of all time and the only man in history to win three gold medals in the distance events in the same Olympic Games, died in Prague on Wednesday at age 78.

Born on 19 September 1922 in northeast Czechoslovakia, Zatopek became an officer in the Czech army. His open support for the democratic movement during the Prague Spring of 1962 cost him his army position, and earned him six years of labor in a uranium mine. The Czech Government eventually acknowledged his contributions by employing him in the Ministry of Sport in 1982.

Nicknamed "the human locomotive", self-coached Zatopek followed unconventional training techniques that included daily long runs up to 15 miles and intense track workouts. He enjoyed running multiple repeats of 400-meter sprints, sometimes in army boots, to prepare himself for the explosive power necessary to win races. During a single workout, he is believed to have run 60 intervals of 400 meters each in 60 seconds.

Zatopek was equally famous for his unusual running style. He ran with his arms flaying, head rolling and his tongue often hanging from one side of his mouth. He made no excuses for his lack of finesse, arguing that running was not gymnastics or ice-skating.

During the 1948 London Olympic Games, Zatopek won the gold medal in the 10,000 meters and the silver medal in the 5,000 meters. However, he made history in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki by winning gold medals in the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon.

With a schedule allowing him to compete in all three races, Zatopek first won the 10,000 meters by 16 seconds. Next, he beat Chris Chattaway in a thrilling sprint to the finish line in the 5,000 meters. Three days later, he made his marathon debut in a field that included world-record holder Jim Peters.

Zatopek followed Peters for 10 miles before asking: "Jim, the pace - is it too fast?" When Peters jokingly replied: "Emil, the pace - it is too slow," Zatopek went past him to win the race in 2 hours 23 minutes 4 seconds, his third Olympic record at Helsinki.

Besides an Olympic triple that may never be repeated, Zatopek set 18 world records over 15 years. His dominance on the track was such that he won 38 consecutive 10,000-meter races between May 1948 and July 1954, including 11 in 1949 alone, and become the first athlete to finish a 10,000m race under 29 minutes.

Zatopek will be remembered not just for his running prowess, but also for his worth as a human being. One of his most amazing gestures was to give one of his gold medals to Australian runner Ron Clarke. Zatopek became the first Czech athlete to be awarded the United Nation's Pierre de Coubertin Prize for promoting Fair Play.

Zatopek is survived by his wife of 52 years, fellow athlete Dana Ingrova, a former Olympic Gold medalist in the javelin.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. Dr.J. created, webcasting live Every Lap of Every Race. He receives email at

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