Search

A BRIDGE TO LONG AGO

March 26, 1990
March 26, 1990

Table of Contents
March 26, 1990

Chavez-Taylor
NCAA Tournament
The Players Championship
Dynasties
Pro Football
Zatopek
Horse Racing
Point After

A BRIDGE TO LONG AGO

For 22 years Emil Zatopek, the marvelous distance runner, was 'not available.' Now, in the new Czechoslovakia, he is at last free

The search and discovery seem so easy now. Hand the address to the cab driver. Travel to the north side of Prague. Stop at the house on the hill, on Nad Kazankou Street. Walk to the iron front gate. Ring the bell. Wait for the 67-year-old man with the slight limp to answer. Follow him up a stone path.

This is an article from the March 26, 1990 issue Original Layout

Where has Emil Zatopek been?

Here.

"Would you like a beer?" he asks. 'I think we have some beer. I used to drink a lot of it, but I don't drink any now. Not good for my heart. Beer would get my pulse racing. I could feel it. Beer is a young man's drink."

The gold medals are kept in a dresser on the second floor. Want to see them? The only one that is missing was given by Zatopek to Ron Clarke, the Australian runner who always finished second. Remember him? A plate of pastries and a plate of cookies have been placed on the living room table. A cousin is asleep in the kitchen, snoring in syncopation with the sound of a cuckoo clock. A radio plays.

What has been the problem?

"How about some orange juice?" Zatopek says. "That's what I think I'll have. Orange juice."

For most of the past 22 years, he has not been available. How could that be? Not available? That was always the official response. Ask how he was, and the Czechoslovakian government would say he was "fine." Ask to see him and he was "not available." Probably the greatest distance runner of all time. A legend. A bona fide, certified legend. Not available.

The stories became virtual folk tales. Where was he? The man who won the 5,000, the 10,000 and the marathon at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki was, it was said, a street sweeper. He was a garbageman. He was a digger of ditches, traveling around the country in a trailer. What was true? What was false?

He was allowed after a long while to travel to this or that international track event, but even then he mostly was a face and a smile. Where were the words?

A blanket of silence had been pulled across his country by the Soviets in 1968, hospital corners tucked neatly under the edge of the Iron Curtain. Doctors became window washers. Physicists became truck drivers. Legends became diggers of ditches. No one could complain. No one could talk.

"It was like this...." Zatopek's wife, Dana, says.

English is her fourth or fifth language, so she uses a visual aid. She pulls open a drawer.

"They put us in here," she says.

She closes the drawer.

"And this was where we stayed."

To finish the explanation, she opens the drawer again. This is now. Pictures of the new president, Vaclav Havel, have been in the windows of the stores in Wenceslas Square. Amazing things have happened since last November. The Soviet troops are going, going, soon to be gone. Lines form in the streets to buy copies of newspapers that didn't exist a few months ago. Free elections are going to be held in June. Mouths can work again.

"For so long, the people of Czechoslovakia had to live with a double face," Dana says. "One face for the public. One face for home. We were a nation of schizophrenia. Now we need only one face. We can tell the truth."

Freedom is being able to speak and move. A door can be opened. A legend can be available.

He could run through the pain. That always was his greatest gift. He never was a picture-book runner, never was a flat-out talent. His style sometimes seemed to be no style at all. He listed to one side, his head cocked, his face contorted. The contortions were so extreme they were humorous and scary at the same time. He always looked as if he could not possibly run one more step. He always did. Sportswriters called him the Human Locomotive.

Hard work was his ally. He ran miles and miles and more miles, the first of the distance runners to accumulate staggering totals, as many as 100 miles a week. He trained in hard combat boots to make his feet feel lighter on race day. He experimented. He wore a gas mask to see if it helped him control his breathing. He ran the stairs of stadiums for endurance. He ran in place in his bathtub. He ran. He told the writers who needled him about his facial contortions that they should try to run five kilometers in 13 minutes and see if they "smiled like cover girls." He ran some more.

"I started late," he says. "I was almost 19 years old. I never had participated in any organized sports. I was working in a shoe factory in Zlin, where I was born. You've heard of Bata shoes? They come from Moravia. The director of the factory said one day that there would be a race through the city on Sunday, and that I should run. I did not want to go. I told him I had a cold. I told him I had a bad knee. He made me go to the company doctor. The doctor said I was fine. I had to run. I surprised myself. I finished second."

The sport was his release. He ran through the Second World War. The Nazis had taken over his country so quickly in 1939 that it hardly had a chance to whimper. He ran through the Nazi era. There were no social gatherings, no dances. He ran. There was a curfew every night at sunset. He went home. He ran in place, miles and miles in one spot. The austerity of his situation somehow helped him become a better runner. There was little meat, so he ate vegetables. There was little coaching, so he became his own coach. He ran.

"If there is luxury, there is the danger of degeneration." he says. "Sit behind the wheel of a car and a man gains time, but loses condition. There was no car. I ran instead. Look at the distance champions today. They are mostly Africans. Runners from underdeveloped countries. They are not softened by luxury."

The war ended in 1945, and he kept running. He was drafted into the new Czech army and at first thought it was a terrible fate. Terrible? The army wanted him to run. He ran in the best facilities with the best trainers. He soon was breaking national records. Running was his military avocation. He was a professional runner.

As the 1948 Olympics in London approached, promising a return to athletic normalcy, he was Czechoslovakia's best hope. A few weeks before the Games, he attended a meet at which his chances of breaking the national record for 3,000 meters became the focus of attention. He was the star.

"I was warming up when there was a great roar and the announcement that a record had been set," he says. "I said, 'What is this? A record? How can it be? I have not run yet.' I was told it was a record in the women's javelin. I was asked to congratulate the woman. I did. We had our pictures taken together. Then I set my record, and she congratulated me. More pictures."

The woman was Dana Ingrova. Shouldn't a love story be part of any legend? He was strumming songs for her on the guitar by the time they went to London. He won the 10,000 in 29:59.6, the first Czechoslovakian runner ever to win an Olympic gold medal. He finished second in the rain in the 5,000. She finished seventh in the javelin. They were married 2½ months later.

Their apartment in Prague became part home, part gymnasium. Each had a separate workout schedule, but at night they would throw a medicine ball to each other. Sometimes the ball landed on the floor. The neighbors downstairs would complain. Emil and Dana would giggle. They would go for picnics in the woods on weekends. She would prepare the lunch. He would plan the direction of the training run.

"Couldn't we have a normal Sunday afternoon once?" she would complain. "A normal picnic?"

"Sure," Emil would reply.

And off he would go.

"He took me on this 25-kilometer run through the snow one Sunday," Dana says. "Halfway through the run, I threw myself on the ground. In the snow. I said, 'Go ahead. I'm just going to lie here and die.' He said, 'No, you're not.' He attached a rope from his belt to mine. He pulled me up. He dragged me the rest of the way. I did not move my legs. Gave him no help. He dragged me. He was tired at the end of that day. For once."

At the Olympics in Helsinki, the local story became the world's story. Emil had noticed that the schedule offered the possibility of running the 10,000, the 5,000 and the marathon. There were two days of rest between the first two events, then three before the marathon. He would try all three. Dana noticed something else about the schedule. The 5,000 final would be run at the same time as the women's javelin final. How could she possibly compete at the same time he was running? How could she focus her attention? She was not supposed to do well anyway. Would she now become an embarrassment?

"A lucky thing happened," she says. "On the day of the final, a Hungarian hammer thrower set a world record. This moved the field events schedule back because the officials had to go through all of those precise measurements to certify the record."

She still had not performed when the 5,000 was run. She was waiting in the tunnel leading into the stadium. All she could hear was noise followed by silence. Who had won? A Russian trainer, Markov, came past. Who had won? Markov said, "Ah, that Emil. He's a nice boy." By the time the medal was awarded and the Czech anthem was played, she had come into the stadium. She was able to yell to her husband—who had run a 14:06.6—as he took a victory lap.

"Emil," she said. "Give me the medal. I will put it in my bag for luck."

She carried the bag, as well as her emotions, to the competition. On the first of her six throws, wonder of spectacular wonders, she propelled the javelin far enough to win the gold medal. All her adrenaline seemed to surge for this one huge throw. The distance was 165 feet, seven inches.

There was a Soviet woman; each time she threw, she came closer and closer," Dana says. "On her final throw, she was 46 centimeters [19 inches] short. Of all things, I did not expect I would win."

In the stadium, Dana did a cartwheel that was caught by the photographers. Emil had already won the 10,000, in 29:17.0, wearing out his opponents one by one and winning by about 100 yards, and he finished the Olympics by winning the marathon. It was the first marathon he ever had run. He ran up front from the start. At one point he asked the leader, Jim Peters of England, how the pace was. After Peters said it was too slow, Zatopek zipped by him and took the lead. He never took any refreshment. He ran the way he ran any other race. He won by 2½ minutes, in 2:23:03.2.

The Finns called him Satu Peka, which translates into "Fairytale Picture." His feat of winning the three distance races will probably never be duplicated. The combined feat—four track and field gold medals for one married couple—also will probably never be duplicated. Four gold medals? Emil and Dana returned home as heroes. God's chosen children.

"The Russians came like barbarians," Emil says. "They had their tanks, their cannons. We are not guilty of anything, but what are we going to do? We cannot charge tanks. It was like the end. No chance."

A lot had happened by 1968. Zatopek had retired from competition shortly after the '56 Olympics in Melbourne. Thirty-four at the time of those Games, he decided he needed to be stronger to compensate for age. He ran some of his workouts carrying Dana on his shoulders. He became stronger. He also developed a hernia. The operation was performed several months before the Olympics. He struggled to finish sixth in the marathon, the only race he ran.

"The night the Russians came—I cannot describe the feeling," Dana says. "I thought we all were dead. That was the only thought: bye-bye. That we all were gone."

She had stayed active after finishing fourth in Melbourne. Officials asked her to help prepare a younger javelin thrower for the 1960 Olympics in Rome. She did a better job than anyone expected. The younger thrower finished fourth. Dana finished second, a silver medalist at the age of 37. She enjoyed the attention. For once she was known as Dana Zatopkova, not as Emil Zatopek's wife. Then she retired from competition.

Emil was still in the army. He was a colonel by now, a coach and sports functionary. Dana was also a coach. There were no children. When the peaceful revolution of the Prague spring of 1968 occurred, when the old-line puppet government dominated by Moscow was overthrown, Emil and Dana were in the front lines. They stood shoulder to shoulder with party secretary Alexander Dubcek and endorsed his promise of grand changes, of a new "humanistic socialism." They composed and gave their own speeches. They wrote articles. This was a revolution staged by thinkers. They were thinkers.

Emil always had been—and still is—a Communist, but he did not like the way the Soviets ran the system. Dana had seen working and living conditions in other countries on her many trips to compete, and she was bothered by the disparity. Why were conditions better elsewhere than in Czechoslovakia? It was as if Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were part of a revolution. This was a famous couple making a public stand.

"We signed The Manifesto of 2,000 Words," Dana says. "Yes. Of course. We both did. It was a very dangerous thing to do."

The Manifesto was a call to the people to stay together, to keep fighting for change during the summer ahead. It was a statement of defiance, of unity against the colossus to the east, signed by many prominent people. It was a phone book for disfavor when the colossus belched, coughed and stirred. The tanks came in August, and there was no problem finding the dissidents. Their names were on the Manifesto.

"I went to the square to talk to the Russians," Emil says. "They did not want to listen, but the people kept saying, 'Hear him out. Do you know your Olympic champions? He is our Olympic champion.' Finally an officer came over. I told him that this invasion was one-sided, that it was offensive to all of us, that it only hurt the Communist movement. He said nothing, but he listened. At the end, he shook my hand. That told me that maybe he felt not right about what he was doing. They knew they were wrong."

Reprisals began. There was no bloodbath, but there was a tightening in every aspect of life. Borders were closed. Public meetings were forbidden. People were purged from the Communist party. The signers of the Manifesto lost their jobs. Simple as that. Czechoslovakia suddenly had some of the most educated menial workers in the world.

Emil was dropped from the army. He was expelled from the party. He could not find work in all of Prague. The drawer was closed. "I kept looking and looking, but no one would hire me," he says. "I could not understand. Finally a man told me that everyone in Prague was afraid to hire me. He said I would have to find work outside the city."

The greatest distance runner of all time became a member of a geological survey team, which searched for minerals and water in the backlands of the country. The job basically was digging, doing construction. He dug. He lifted 110-pound sacks of cement. He left home and lived in a trailer for stretches of 10 and 14 days. The work began at seven in the morning and ended at eight at night. When he came home for a fortnight, he was exhausted. Dana mostly was alone in their house on the hill, worrying.

"I did not want him to go to jail," she says. "My father was in jail under the Germans. The Gestapo came in the middle of the night and took him away. He was at Dachau, Buchenwald, later in a prison in Brno. He was a colonel in the Czech army. The Nazis kept him as a hostage. He lost all of those years in jail.

"I did not want this to happen to Emil. I told him I did not want him to be a hero. What good is it if someone says five or 10 years after you are dead that you are a hero? Maybe don't be such a big hero. Maybe be alive, instead."

Perhaps Emil misinterpreted the signals Dana sent him. He was under pressure from the Czech sports authorities. They called him an ingrate. Who was he to go against the government? The government had made him a champion. He lived two times, three times better than most people. Where was his gratitude? The secret police visited. There never were any physical threats, but there always were requests to sign a public statement. Why not? Sign. The pen was offered again and again.

Finally, in 1971, Emil signed.

A story appeared in the Communist daily, Rude Pravo. It gave the impression that Emil had repudiated the Manifesto. All he had done by signing, in fact, was to voice a qualified acceptance of the current system. But Rude Pravo did not carry any qualifications. The act was what mattered. The only importance was Emil's signature at the bottom. The reader would nod and say, "Ah, yes, he signed." It was not a happy moment.

"Emil made two mistakes," Dana says. "First, he did not read what he signed. The journalist who wrote the story was not able to capture Emil's—what is the word? Heart? Maybe not heart. He did not capture the meaning of Emil. Second, Emil did not talk with me before he signed. If he did, I don't think he would have done it.

"You have to understand, though, it was a time—oh, it's just hard to explain. Emil is a Communist. You have to know that. He wants the Communist system to work the way it is supposed to work. His father was a Communist. There are people who think he got something for signing that piece of paper. Let them think what they want. We got nothing. Our lives were not changed one bit."

Emil continued to work for the geological research team. He still was "not available." Invitations would arrive monthly for him to attend this or that event. Not available. Western journalists would ask for interviews. Not available.

"In 1973 Paavo Nurmi [the Finnish distance runner who won nine Olympic gold medals from 1920 to '28] died," Emil says. "There was a memorial race, and the officials wondered who would give the Paavo Nurmi medal? They thought first of Zatopek. They asked if I could come. I finally was allowed to travel."

One trip to honor a former distance runner seemed to open up the possibilities for another. Emil would go from the survey team to the reviewing stand, then back to his shovel. In 1975 he was allowed to go to Paris to receive a medal at a UNESCO function. When he returned, he was approached by someone from the sports ministry. All of this back-and-forth business was too complicated. A job had opened in the ministry. Would he be interested?

"I became a sports spy," Emil says. "I could read all of the languages, so my job was to read foreign sports periodicals to see what the coaches in other countries were doing."

That was what he did until 1982, when he retired at age 60. Reading periodicals. Dana retired at the same time. She found that her pension was very low. She went to officials to complain.

"I told them I had worked for this country for 35 years," she says. "I said I have been a coach, a teacher, a winner of medals. There were people who worked far less than me who had received much better pensions. The officials said, 'Yes, but you signed The 2,000 Words. You never apologized. This is your pension. You will get no more.' "

Emil and Dana have not been much involved in the recent tumultuous changes in their homeland that have, among other things, made him at last "available." This has been a revolution staged by a younger generation. Vera Caslavska, a gold medal gymnast in 1968 in Mexico City, is the most prominent athlete involved. She is an adviser to President Havel. She is about 20 years younger than Emil and Dana.

Earlier this month the defense minister publicly apologized to Zatopek for his dismissal from the army in '68. It took 22 years for him to be rehabilitated. Emil and Dana attended one huge rally on the Letna Plains near the Sparta soccer stadium. The crowd was estimated at more than half a million people. Some of them spotted Emil and told him to go to the stage and speak. He is an animated, powerful speaker, with his words still tinged by his Moravian accent. He declined. He said it was time for other people to be on the stage.

"Our hope is that all will be quiet and we can live the last years of our life in a democracy," Dana says. "We hope for peace and good health."

Emil wishes the sciatic nerve condition in his left leg would clear so that he would be able to run again. Dana is in fine shape. She runs and swims and skis. Emil already has traveled to San Sebastian, Spain, to receive a medal. He has been invited to Australia, to Israel, to Greece. He will see how he feels.

"I think sometimes about our lives, Emil's and mine," Dana says in the house on the hill. "They have been like this—"

She uses another visual aid. Her right hand cuts through the air. Up and down. Up and down. She describes a roller coaster. Up. Her hand finishes high in the air. The cuckoo clock ticks. A cousin snores.

PHOTOGUGLIERMO DE MICHELIPHOTOPHOTOAT THE 1952 OLYMPICS IN HELSINKI, ZATOPEK WON THE THREE LONGEST EVENTS—THE 5,000 (BELOW), 10,000 (RIGHT, TOP) AND MARATHON (RIGHT, BOTTOM)—AN ACHIEVEMENT THAT WILL LIKELY NEVER BE DUPLICATEDPHOTOUPI/BETTMANN[See caption above.]PHOTON.R. FARBMAN[See caption above.]PHOTORALPH CRANEIN HELSINKI, EMIL AND DANA—THE GOLD MEDALIST IN THE JAVELIN—HAD THEIR FUTURES BEFORE THEM. THEY WOULD NEVER BE AS CAREFREE AGAINPHOTOALAIN NOGUES/GLOBE PHOTOSZATOPEK LOST HIS ARMY JOB AFTER SPEAKING OUT IN '68 AND WAS PUT TO HARD LABOR. BUT HE CONTINUED TO ENJOY FAVOR AMONG HIS COUNTRYMENPHOTOGUGLIERMO DE MICHELIDANA AND EMIL LEAD A QUIET LIFE IN PRAGUE, WHERE THEY RAISE VEGETABLES IN THEIR BACKYARD. HERE THEY BURN STUBBLE IN A COMPOST PILE