The Bouncing Czech - The Greatest Runner Ever?
November 18th, 2010

 The Bouncing Czech - The Greatest Runner Ever?

Emil Zátopek  (1922-2000)

be sure to check out the Czech here @

One of the greatest runners of the 20th Century, Emil Zátopek achieved legendary status when he won the 5,000, the 10,000 and the marathon at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.

"The Locomotive" or the "Bouncing Czech" as he came to be known, dominated long distance running from 1948 until 1954 when he won a remarkable 38 consecutive 10,000 meter races, including 11 in 1949 alone. He set 18 world records over various distances including every record from 5K to 30K, and won four Olympic gold medals and one silver.

He was the first to run a 10K under 29 minutes and the first to run 20K in one hour.

The Beginning

Emil Zátopek was born in Koprivnice, Czechoslovakia on September 19, 1922, the 6th child of a modest family. At age 16 he began working at the Bata shoe factory in Ziln. In 1940 Bata sponsored a 1,500m race, and he was persuaded to enter even though he had no training. Out of the field of 100 Emil finished second and he began to take a serious interest in the sport.

A mere four years later, in 1944 Emil broke the Czech records for 2,000, 3,000 and 5,000 meters. He was selected for the Czech national team for the 1946 European Championships. He finished fifth in the 5K, breaking his own Czech record of 14:50.2, running 14:25.8.

The Olympics

The 5-foot-8, 145 pound athlete made his Olympic debut at the 1948 London Games. He was 26 years old with little international racing experience, yet he won the 10,000 and was second in the 5,000.

Emil married Dana Ingrova, fellow Czech team member shortly after the Olympics. Dana and Emil shared the same birthday, September 19th, and they married on that day in 1948. Dana competed in the javelin and won gold in 1952 and silver in 1960.

"The Nickel, the Dime, and the Big One"

In 1952 at the Helsinki Olympics Emil achieved the impossible. Despite a doctor's warning that he shouldn't compete due to a gland infection two months before, he won the 5,000m, the 10,000m and the marathon, all in a span of eight days. He set a new Olympic record in all three events, and he had never run a marathon before!

From their 1982 book Fast Tracks - The History of Distance Running authors Raymond Krise and Bill Squires describe the 1952 Olympic 5,000 Meter Final:

The final lap: Schade, Chataway, Mimoun, along with Zátopek who is in agony. One of these will win; the rest are dead or dying. At the sound of the bell Zátopek punches maniacally, leaping the entourage in a single bound, his eyes barely visible under his brow's furrows. He can't shake his attackers! The strategic kick gains him NOTHING, costs him nearly everything.

In 100 meters Chataway sails past him, Schade in his shadow. 200 meters from the medals Chataway, Schade, Mimoun run inside each others shorts. Zátopek is two meters behind them, his speed unequal to their's, his massive strength drained. Schade asserts his right to the lead. Chataway disputs it, taking command heading into the final turn. The crowd is frantic, howling wildly.

Then the howls coalesce. They are screaming Zá-to-PEK! Zá-to-PEK! From deep within, the Czech Locomotive has summonded the courage of the angels! Chataway, who in two years will push Bannister through the 4-minute barrier, leans hard into the turn, balancing himself for a devastating sprint. It never comes. Zátopek springs like Blake's tyger, his jaws slavering, his driving leg pummeling the dirt track. Panicked by Zátopek's fury, Schade and Mimoun blast past Chataway.

It's too late. Zátopek is all over them and away, his upper and lower bodies almost going in different directions as he powers through the turn far wider than any of the others. Chataway, passed by three different men in the space of four footsteps, brushes against the turn's pole and crashes to the track.

Zátopek's face is crucified with noble effort, his eyes closed, his mouth agape. Mimoun claws the air with arm thrusts, as if to grasp Zátopek's singlet and halt him. Schade in third, glares angrily through his eyeglasses, his top speed gaining him naught on Zátopek's courage.

"Zá-to-PEK! Zá-to-PEK! Zá-to-PEK!" The Beast of Prague breaks the tape, after breaking the field, in 14:06.6. Mimoun crosses second in 14:07.4. Schade, third, in 14:08.6. Zátopek takes nearly 9 seconds off Schade's still wet Olympic record. The final lap takes 57.9 seconds, and many years of pain and determination.

Emil Zátopek has his 5K gold. The rest of him is steel.

In 1955 Zatopek set the last two of his world records, for 15 miles and 25,000 meters. In 1956 he retired from competition after finishing sixth in the marathon at the Melbourne Olympics. He had a hernia operation six weeks before the games.

Emil is credited with revolutionalizing running and training. He developed intense interval workouts that have become the standard today.

In 1998 Emil was awarded the Order of the White Lion, a national honor presented to him by Czech President Vaclav Havel.

During the last year of his life he had spent time in the hospital due to pneumonia and a broken hip. He died November 22, 2000 at age 78 after being admitted to Prague's Military Hospital following a stroke on October 30th. Thousands attended the funeral of the Czech Republic's greatest athlete.