1952 Olympic hero Zatopek emerges from decades in shadows

Emil Zatopek sought out the head of the Czech Olympic delegation at Helsinki, Finland, in 1952. It did not promise to be a cheery discussion, which was a shame, since Zatopek, as always, felt exceptionally cheery.

Zatopek already had entered two races in the 1952 Olympic Games, the 10,000 and 5,000 meters, and he had won gold medals and set Olympic records in both. Still, he was out of favor with team officials for his attitude, which in their view was never quite deferential enough.


And now Zatopek wanted to discuss the marathon.

"The main coach of our team, he tried to warn me," Zatopek said recently, smiling at the memory. " 'But you never run a marathon. You don't know pace, tactics.' But for me, no problem."


Zatopek read in the newspaper that Jim Peters of Britain was the favorite in the marathon. The story gave Peters' uniform number. With this information, Zatopek reasoned, what more was there to know?

On the day of the race Zatopek found Peters at the start and introduced himself.

"You are Peters?" Zatopek asked. "I said, 'I am Zatopek, Czechoslovakia. Very glad to meet you.' OK, I say, he must know how to run if he is favorite. For me, it is only to keep up with him."

Having never run a marathon, Zatopek's perfectly logical plan was to stick with the man favored to win. However, Peters took off at a startling pace, and Zatopek, who was running with a Swedish athlete, caught up with Peters and asked if the pace was too fast. Peters, annoyed, said that no, the pace was too slow. Zatopek thought he saw signs of fatigue in Peters but was unsure.

"I felt great pain in my muscles," Zatopek said. "There was refreshment table every five kilometers with oranges, lemons and Coca-Cola. But for me, no experience. I was not used to eating during training. No, for me it was to train and to eat after."

Zatopek also said he believed he would be required to pay for whatever he took and had no money to give. So he watched as Peters and the Swedish runner Jansson took water and fruit at the aid stations. Zatopek thought about this food development, wondering if this might be one of the many elements of the marathon that the Czech officials warned him about.

"At the 25-kilometer refreshment station, the organizer ran alongside and gave half a lemon to Jansson and half to me," Zatopek said. "Jansson took it immediately, but I said, 'No, I mustn't take it.' But he took it so I thought, 'What to do? Should I go back? No, next time I will take two.' "

But having made that decision, Zatopek changed his mind when, 500 meters after the refreshment station, he watched Jansson falter and drop back. "No lemons for me," Zatopek decided. For the entire 26.2-mile race, Zatopek took no refreshment.


Soon after leaving Jansson, Zatopek caught Peters, who was paying the price for his blistering early pace. Zatopek was leading by a wide margin, but he was in pain and very tired.

"I look ahead, and I can see nothing of the city," Zatopek said. "I want to quit, yes, but how to get back to town? I am 20 kilometers away, so I say I must run back. So I run. The only thing I can see ahead is a very high tower with a flame on top, the Olympic flame. So I decide I must run to the flame."

That flame still burns in Emil Zatopek, the greatest middle-distance runner of all time. He has four Olympic gold medals and one silver. In his career, which spanned three Olympiads and nearly 20 years, Zatopek set 18 world records.

And his accomplishments came before East bloc countries recognized the propaganda value that world-class athletes represented. Far from getting the sophisticated governmental support under which East bloc athletes have recently thrived, Zatopek succeeded in spite of the Czech government.

Zatopek has been stripped of his army officer's rank, been publicly humiliated, been made to collect street garbage, been held under virtual house arrest for a decade. But he has not been forgotten. He has, though it all, demonstrated great humanity. And, through the forum of international sports, Zatopek had the opportunity to touch more lives than all the propaganda his government could ever hope to churn out.

Zatopek was brought to the United States in early April by a group of running physicians at Stanford University. The doctors, who form the Over 50 Club, which has a rather blurred social-running function, had heard Zatopek was no longer able to run because of a back ailment. This thought gave the group shudders -- the greatest runner of all time bereft of his ability to run -- and they set about finding a way to heal Zatopek, who is 69.


These recreational runners took up donations and brought Zatopek to Stanford's sophisticated medical center for tests and, perhaps, surgery. Also to get a close-up look at a legend.

To honor Zatopek, the Over 50 Club organized a mini-track meet. Running in the pouring rain, the middle-aged doctors happily performed for the Olympic champion. Zatopek, while soaked, smiled and clapped. "This is nice," he said.

The tests disclosed a pinched nerve that, if operated upon, might cause more problems than if left alone. The doctors said they were sorry, but there was nothing they could do. They could not fix it so that he could run again. Zatopek smiled and said, "No problem, thank you very much."

But Zatopek was still in pain, and his friend Olga Connolly could not bear to witness it. She begged him to allow her take him to a massage therapist to get relief from the pain. He steadfastly resisted.

"After everything the doctors have done for me, I will not double-cross them," Zatopek told her.

Because there was to be no surgery, Zatopek found himself with an extra week in California. Connolly, who knew Zatopek in Czechoslovakia when she was a world-class discus thrower there, arranged for him to come to Los Angeles and stay at her home.


Connolly also typed out a sightseeing itinerary for Zatopek, who had never been to the West Coast. Her daughter, Merja -- newly arrived from playing professional volleyball in Italy -- was to be tour guide while Olga was working.

The tour weaved through the Los Angeles area. Through it all, Zatopek sat in the car smiling, noting particularly bright flowers and, eyes narrowed, remarked on the sprawling homes.

"To live in such a place, how is it possible?" he said.

Stopping for coffee at a cafe, Zatopek abruptly left the table and walked among the flower beds, stepping gingerly and bending to examine plants he did not recognize. Oblivious to the glares of other patrons, Zatopek returned to his seat. There, he happily ate his croissant -- making sure to tear a piece for himself and a piece for the birds chattering at his feet.

The scene is reminiscent of many Zatopek stories. He was always known as a runner who would help competitors. It was common for him to win races by a large margin and it was common for Zatopek to finish a race, turn and greet his competitors as they crossed the finish line, offering them water.

Zatopek, who is multilingual, had a habit of talking to other runners during a race. This often irritated his competitors, who mistook his friendliness for arrogance. Many times in Olympic qualifying heats, Zatopek would slow down to allow other runners to pass him or run alongside a struggling runner, giving support.


"He would always honestly and generously advise the other runners," Connolly said. "And they would always do the opposite. They never trusted him. He would discuss strategy and tactics. No one would listen. And they always lost."

Zatopek is not a great political thinker. He endures politics only so long as it is a means to help people, which is why "Communism With a Human Face" so appealed to him in 1968. When the Czechs briefly threw off their Soviet yoke, Zatopek and his wife Dana signed the Manifesto of 2,000 Words, a kind of declaration of independence, a call to the Czech people to fight for independence.

Spring gave way to summer, and by August Soviet tanks were rumbling though the streets of Prague. The new authorities took reprisals against those who opposed Soviet rule. Those dissidents were easy to find. Their names were on The Manifesto of 2,000 Words.

Zatopek, a national hero, was stripped of his rank as colonel in the army. He was kicked out of the Communist Party.

When he tried to find work in Prague he was told there was none -- for him. He was forced to work farther and farther away from home. For a time, Zatopek worked in uranium mines, operating a boring machine hundreds of feet underground.

He worked in the country on a geological research team, doing manual labor. He boss took pleasure in taunting the former sports hero -- "You, Zatopek, bring me that 50-kilo sack of cement. You practice sport for 20 years and you are so weak. How can this be?"


Zatopek was silent. And every day invitations poured into the Czech government, asking for Zatopek to attend this track meet, these Olympic Games, this event to honor him. The government refused all requests. To the rest of the world, Zatopek had dropped off the face of the earth.

"For me, it was not allowed to be part of sport," he said. "I could not speak. I was not allowed to visit a competition. I could not leave. It was a bad time. There was no democracy and lack of human rights. People were critical of sportsmen because they had great privileges, many chances."

Now, with a new government, democracy and open borders, Zatopek has reappeared. He is in demand, and now he attends functions around the world. Zatopek is a happy man. He loves to sing. Though singing he has learned to speak six languages.

He doesn't want to waste his time with anger over the past. Nor does he dwell on his own accomplishments, preferring to look to the future.

"It was my dream to give a good example to children and get them started," Zatopek said. "But it was only a dream."

It is more than a dream. Through his efforts to work with young athletes in his country, Zatopek has had a rebirth of fame. To many young Czechs, Zatopek is the flame toward which they now run.