...was born 90 years ago in Koprivnice up near the Polish border in Czechoslovakia; he was a soldier and he ran. When he was off duty he ran off into the woods in his army boots: through snow if he had to and with a flashlight if it was dark, until he was miles out of sight and hearing and dropping tired . . . and then he ran back again. When you look at footage of his contorted face and the desperate striving of his limbs, (Commentator Red Smith wrote that Zatopek "ran like a man with a noose around his neck...the most frightful horror spectacle since Frankenstein...on the verge of strangulation; his hatchet face was crimson; his tongue lolled out.”) it is impossible to believe that he ran for joy. He ran because that’s what he did.
There are times when sport is so compelling that even the most dismissive anti-athlete can be brought to the edge of his couch with a dry mouth and tears starting as they witness a triumph of the human spirit. Of course, there are other moments of such fluid grace and decisive action on the field that you can relax knowing that no mere mortal could achieve the feat. But when an athlete draws deep on their reserves of grit and courage to finish the race, you can be inspired to believe that you could, in suitable circumstances, tap into some deeply buried inner resources of your own. And when your team scores the winning goal, or in Ireland’s case secures another triumphal draw, the sense of elation transcends all sense and sensibility.
As the world emerged shattered from the Second World War, Zatopek represented his country at the 1948 London Olympics, came second in the 5,000 meters and won Gold for the 10,000. He could communicate in six languages and laughed a lot, so he made good copy for the international press. In the Olympics barracks (the athletes were housed back then in Nissen huts on two wartime aerodromes), his kindness and multilingual skills made him popular with his fellow athletes, and he advised younger runners (clearly with a sense of do what I say, don’t do what I do!) that touching thumb gently to forefinger while running forces the arms to relax and so conserves energy.
Four years later, the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia assembled a team for the 1952 Helsinki games with Zatopek as their star runner. When his middle distance colleague Stanislav Jungwirth was dropped from the team because his father was a political dissident, Zatopek folded his arms and refused to represent his country unless Jungwirth went too. The rump of the Czechoslovak team arrived in Helsinki to be met by a huge crowd at the airport chanting Zatopek’s name, so the government back home had to cave in and send Jungwirth and Zatopek on the next plane to Finland.
Having knocked off Gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters early in the schedule, Zatopek shrugged and entered his name for the Marathon: a distance he’d never run in competition before. But he had a cunning plan: at the start of the race he edged close to English World marathon champion Jim Peters to see how to run long distance. It was a hot day and Peters set off at a blistering pace to burn off the opposition. Six miles out, Zatopek, still battened onto Peters’ shoulder, with a beginner’s confusion asked if the pace wasn’t rather fast for such a long race. Peters attempted a little gentle British irony and replied that, on the contrary, it was too slow. Zatopek nodded his thanks, took the advice literally and powered off into the distance. He arrived back at the stadium with no-one else in sight and the crowd ROARED, then started chanting his name “Zatopek Zatopek Zatopek” all through the final circuit until he breasted the tape to win his third Gold of the games. The Jamaican relay team seized him and carried him shoulder-high round the stadium to universal acclaim. For all the razz and all the matazz in London last summer, there was nothing to match that glowing hour.