FOOTNOTES - July EditionJuly 4th, 2012
60 Years Ago, an Olympic Trifecta of Endurance
By GEORGE A. HIRSCH
Published: June 23, 2012
no experience can compare to my first Olympics, the 1952 Helsinki Games. I had graduated from New Rochelle High School a month earlier and was hungry to see the world while following my favorite track and field athletes.
My vivid memories of the events in Helsinki were aided by a journal I kept and by videos from the Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan. My friend Steve Goddard and I booked passage (12 days!) on a tramp steamer for $95. In Helsinki, Steve and I stayed with a local family that charged $2 each a night for a comfortable room, breakfast and any other meals we happened to show up for.
At the opening ceremony, I found myself among the 70,000 spectators on a rainy, chilly day in July. I remember the parade of athletes, nation by nation, walking into the stadium, circling the track, and taking their places on the infield. This was followed by a 21-gun salute, and our breathless anticipation to see who would light the Olympic flame. When Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, who dominated distance running in the 1920s, came striding into the stadium, holding the flame aloft, the crowd erupted in wild appreciation. The athletes on the infield crowded to the track’s edge to get a better look, with one exception: the Soviet Union’s contingent. Dressed in white suits with red ties and scarves, the Soviet athletes stood stiffly at attention. At the height of the cold war, they presented a stark image that served to highlight their differences with the rest of the world.
In high school, I ran the quarter-mile, 440 yards, so I was looking forward to seeing the sprints and middle distances. My attention shifted after the first day of track and field competition, as it became clear that a mesmerizing distance runner named Emil Zatopek was the one to watch.
A Czech army major, Zatopek ran with a bobbing head, flailing shoulders and a contorted face. His style didn’t stop him from breaking his Olympic record in the 10,000 meters.
Between days at the track, I walked the streets of Helsinki, eager to meet people and soak up the local culture. To my surprise, I was often stopped and asked for my autograph. Frankly, I didn’t mind being mistaken for an Olympic athlete, but I thought I should explain that I was just an American visitor. But many visitors understood little or no English. Soon I changed tactics, and began signing my name with crossed swords below to indicate that I was a fencer.
One day I walked to the Olympic Village, where I was waved in by a smiling guard who was unconcerned about my lack of credentials. I chatted freely with athletes in their dining hall, and joined some of them on the official bus back to the stadium, three miles away. No questions asked. The massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Games lay 20 years ahead.
On the third day of track competition, I sat with an Argentine marathoner who seemed unusually interested in the 5,000-meter race. When Zatopek appeared on the track for his warm-up, the Argentine pointed at him and broke into a big smile. He figured that Zatopek would then skip the marathon. No one had ever attempted to win all three classic distance races — the 5,000, the 10,000 and the marathon. Two days later, Zatopek won the 5,000 with a typically furious sprint finish and set another Olympic record.
In the sprint races at Helsinki, much attention focused on Harrison Dillard of the United States and Herb McKenley of Jamaica, two greats who had unfinished business from the 1948 London Olympics.
Dillard, who failed to qualify for the 110-meter hurdles in 1948, reached the final in Helsinki. I remember leaning forward in my seat as the starter raised his gun, bouncing to my feet as Dillard tore down the track and cheering lustily as he broke the tape.
“I’m sure you won,” Remigino, a Manhattan College student, said to McKenley in the interim. The judges saw it differently.
Both runners were given the same time, but Remigino was declared the winner. McKenley got a silver. In his best event, the 400, McKenley also finished second to another countryman, George Rhoden.
On the final day of racing, McKenley returned to the track to run the third leg on Jamaica’s 4x400-meter relay team. When he received the baton, McKenley was 12 meters behind the American Charlie Moore. But McKenley ran what was then considered the fastest 400 — an unofficial split of 44.9 seconds — to give Rhoden a one-meter lead to start the anchor leg, and Rhoden held it to the finish. Both Jamaica and the United States broke the world record, and McKenley had finally won a gold medal.
McKenley devoted the rest of his life to making Jamaica an international powerhouse in the sprints. His legacy was showcased in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Jamaica is also expected to do well in this summer’s London Games.
It seemed impossible that anyone could overshadow McKenley’s last-day performance in Helsinki, but there had never been a runner like Emil Zatopek. Competing in his first marathon, Zatopek ran the British world-record holder Jim Peters off his feet at the 20-mile mark, and entered the stadium with a lead of more than two minutes. Reinaldo Corno of Argentina finished second. Corno was the one sitting next to me a few days earlier, thinking Zatopek would most likely not attempt the marathon.
As Zatopek circled the stadium track en route to his third Olympic record in three races, the entire crowd rose to its feet and turned his name into a staccato cheer: “Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek!” These Finns were fully versed in the history of Nurmi, and they well understood they were witnessing an Olympic feat that might never be equaled. (To this day, it hasn’t been.)
I remember the moment as if it were yesterday: the excitement verging on disbelief, and the thunderous acclaim.
In 1979, I invited Zatopek to New York to be grand marshal of the New York City Marathon. I introduced him to Bill Rodgers, whose eyes widened as he muttered, “Mind-boggling.”
As the three of us went running in Central Park the day before Rodgers won his fourth straight New York City Marathon, a photographer asked the driver of a parks department cart if he could climb aboard to take some pictures. When the driver, who was from Prague, recognized his balding countryman, he shouted, “Zatopek!” and broke into tears as the two men embraced.
I’ve been a television commentator at three Olympics, but this summer I’ll be watching the Games at home like millions of others. That won’t diminish my enthusiasm. When Usain Bolt explodes from the starting blocks, I’ll jump out of my chair almost as quickly. And when today’s distance stars battle through the last laps of the 10,000 meters, I’m sure that I’ll feel much of the same excitement I did while watching Zatopek 60 years ago.
Emil Zatopek won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and the marathon -
all in record times - at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.