“I am not talented enough to run and smile at the same time”
Helsinki has already been selected to host the Olympics of 1940, which were cancelled because of WWII, although in 1947 it was successful again to win the bid for hosting the 1952 Olympics.
These Olympic Games saw the first appearance of China, the USSR and Israel, among other countries. Athletic legends Paavo Nurmi and marathon medallist Hannes Kolehmainen were selected to lit the Olympic flame.
Emil Zátopek was born in a modest family, in the small village of Koprivnice. He initially wanted to be a teacher but was never very good at school. At 14 he started an apprenticeship in a shoe factory in Zlin while going to night classes. He started running by chance, when was ordered to compete in a race by his tutor. Finishing second, it was a turning point for him, as he liked the experience so much that started training seriously.
At the end of WWII he joined the Czech Army, where he was given enough time to train. Following Paavo Nurmi´s techniques he pushed himself to run 100 series of 400 metres, 50 in the morning and 50 in the evening, many times in unfavourable conditions or using army boots. In the 1948 Olympics he won gold in the 10000 metres and silver in the 5000 metres. He followed his Olympic success with a stride of 69 consecutive running victories between 1949 and 1951, breaking a plethora of records, until he got injured while skiing.
He arrived to Helsinki not in the best physical conditions, but he was able to revalidate his gold medal in the 10000 metres, and win also the 5000 metres, breaking both Olympic records in the process. Running the marathon was a last minute decision, as he had never ran that distance before.
The marathon favourite was the British marathon champion Jim Peters, who was also world-record holder. He had moved to the marathon distance after a humiliating defeat by Zatopek himself in the 10000 metres in the previous Olympics, a distance he never run again. Before the start in the Olympic Stadium Zátopek approached Peters to introduce himself “Hello, I am Zatopek”.
On July 27th at 15.28 there were 66 runners in the start. Peters started very fast, being first at the 5 and 10k control points. At the 15k marker the Swedish Gustaf Jansson had joined Peters in the lead, with Zatopek 2 seconds behind, and a minute later the British Stan Cox and the defending champion, the Argentinian Delfo Cabrera.
Before the 20k Zátopek was already in the leading pack. With doubts in his distance debut, he asked Peters if their pace was appropriate. It looks that Peters jokingly answered that maybe it was too slow. Zátopek increased the pace, and only Jansson was able to follow him.
By the 30k Zátopek was still leading, with Jansson 26 seconds later, and Peters still managing the third place 45 seconds behind. Accompanying him was the full Argentinian team: Cabrera, rising marathon star Reinaldo Gorno, and Corsino Fernández.
Shortly afterwards Peters had to abandon the race with a left leg muscle cramp. His early fast running was too much for him, so that by the 35k Gorno was in 3rd position, with experienced comrade Cabrera behind, and Korean Choi Yoon-chil recovering positions in 5th.
In the 40k Zátopek was more than 2 minutes ahead of his closest opponent, and the victory seemed in hand. His pace had decreased strongly, but he looked relaxed and chatty. When he entered the stadium, all the spectators, standing, cheered him, as they were witnessing and incredible triple gold in distance running, and his third Olympic record in the process, with 2.23.03.
But what happened behind? In the 39k Gorno had surpassed Jansson and got into the silver medal slot. The last 2 kilometres still had more changes. With Jansson now in 3rd, Choi overtook Cabrera for the 4th place. In the stadium Finnish Karvonen outsprinted Cabrera to enter in 5th, ahead of Cabrera.
The first 8 finishers were faster than the marathon Olympic record of 1936, with the top 15 runners doing personal best. As a comparison, Cabrera, also improving his personal best, finished in 6th with a time of 2.26.42, when he had won the 1948´s Olympic marathon in 2.34.51.
Zátopek would not be finished with the Olympics yet. He kept training with Melbourne´s Games in the horizon, including cross-country run while carrying his wife on his back. A hernia, and the subsequent operation took their toll. Nevertheless, he was able to run the Melbourne´s Olympic marathon, where he finished 6th, the same achievement of Delfo Cabrera four years earlier, retiring shortly afterwards.
He stayed in the army, where he reached colonel range, although was expelled for his support to the democracy during the 1968 Prague Spring. He ended collecting rubbish and working in a uranium mine for 7 years. He managed to go back to Prague, where he lived quietly until his death in 2000.
“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.