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Emil Zátopek

photo: Emil Zátopek, Melbourne 1956 (ČOV - Olympic.cz)

The Czech sporting elite includes numerous famous personalities whose achievements during the Olympic Games gained worldwide attention. The top watched sporting events won by Czech medallists include Věra Čáslavská (gymnastics), Martina Navrátilová (tennis), Jan Železný (javelin throw), Aleš Valenta (acrobatic skiing) or Martina Sáblíková (speed skating) who all helped to build up the Czech Republic’s image as sport superpower. However, there is one legend honoured for remarkable accomplishments that stand out above all others – Emil Zátopek. By single-handedly redrawing the boundaries of his sport, Zátopek became the greatest runner of the 20th century.


Zátopek, born in the Northern Moravian village of Kopřivnice on 19 September 1922, started running by lucky chance. In 1941, the untrained teenager took part in the Zlín City Run and to his own surprise, he finished second. Since then Zátopek became actively engaged in athletics. Following the two years of severe and harsh training schedule (something Zátopek became famous for), he set new Czech records. He soon discovered that he was fond of longer tracks. At the European Championship in Oslo, Zátopek began to make a name for himself by winning the 5,000 meter run. During the 1940s, he led the world charts in the 10,000m which earned him the start at the Olympics Games.

In the history of athletics, Emil Zátopek left his mark by accomplishing an unprecedented hat trick during the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. First, he won the 10,000 meter gold, followed by the victory in the 5,000 metre run. Ultimately, he achieved winning the marathon in which he competed for the first time. The runner with thinning hair and expression of utter pain on his face earning him the nickname “Locomotive” became a national hero. Zátopek broke 18 world records and he was voted the greatest athlete of all time for three times. Zátopek and his wife Dana, also an Olympic champion and world record holder in the women’s javelin throw, formed one of the most famous sporting couples. Together, they won four Olympic golds in Helsinki, all within the space of eight days.

Zátopek wrapped up his career in 1958. Afterwards, he was assured a good career in the army. In 1968, however, he publicly condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. As a result, he was stripped of his rank and discharged from the army. Since then, he had to make a living as a labourer in the uranium mines. After the Velvet Revolution, he was rehabilitated on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Czech athletics and he was named the Olympic Sportsman of the century. The most renowned Czech athlete died in November 2000 at the age of 78.

“I won Olympic golds in the 5,000m and 10,000m in London in 2012, but could not have imagined running the marathon as well. I don’t think we will ever see his feat repeated in a future Olympic Games. Zátopek was also the first person to break 29 minutes for the 10,000m” says Mo Farah, the long-distance runner and the 2016 double gold medal winner from Rio de Jainero, for the cover of the book “Emil the Runner”.

Emil Zátopek remains an inspirational force even today. For instance, a Belgian sport magazine has borne the Zátopek’s name for ten years. The prestigious Wall Street Journal called Zátopek “the best runner of all time”. In 2016, the four-time Olympic champion was turned into a stick figure by academic painter Milan Jaroš to become a leading theme of the Czech Olympic Team’s presentation apparel and sportswear. And so Zátopek’s famous slogan “Running out of breath? Then go faster!” supported the Czech Olympic team in Rio de Jainero too.

Added: 18.04.2017

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