Emil Zatopek ran as if enduring the torture of the damned, his
arms swinging wildly across his twisted torso as if warding off
blows, his jagged features contorted in agony, his eyes
searching the heavens as if for merciful intervention. "He ran,"
wrote sports columnist Red Smith, "like a man with a noose
around his neck." But for all his apparent suffering, Zatopek
kept pumping his sturdy legs, and at the Helsinki Games, the
Czech army captain achieved the most amazing triple in track and
field history. In succession he won the 10,000 meters, the 5,000
meters and the marathon--all in Olympic-record times.

This is an article from the Aug. 4, 1996 issue

Zatopek was no stranger to the Games, having won the 10,000 in
London four years earlier and missed winning the 5,000 by about
a meter. By 1952 he was considered the world's premier distance
runner, a possible successor to the Flying Finn himself, Paavo
Nurmi, who won three gold medals in distance events in three
Olympics in the 1920s. But no one could have anticipated such a
performance, and on Nurmi's home turf at that.

In the 10,000, Zatopek shattered his own Olympic record with a
time of 29:17.0, finishing a full 15.8 seconds ahead of silver
medalist Alain Mimoun of France. In the 5,000, four days later,
Zatopek was in a five-way race for the lead some 300 meters from
the tape when he launched a finishing kick that left the others
gasping in his wake. His 14:06.6 was another Olympic record.
Later that same afternoon Zatopek's wife, Dana, who was born on
the same day he was (Sept. 19, 1922), won the women's javelin
with a throw of 165'7", also an Olympic record. The odds of a
husband and wife being born on the same day and winning Olympic
gold medals on the same day would seem incalculable.

Yet there would be more glory for the Zatopeks. Emil had decided
to run his first marathon in these Games. A gregarious man, he
sought out the race favorite, Jim Peters of Great Britain, who
six weeks earlier had run the fastest marathon to date, in
2:20:42. Zatopek explained to Peters at the starting line that
because he knew nothing of marathon pacing, he would probably
follow Peters for a while to get the hang of it. Peters
responded by establishing a brutally fast pace in hopes of
exhausting Zatopek, who looked near death's door a quarter of
the way into the race. But he stayed at Peters's shoulder.

Finally, after 10 miles, Zatopek, who spoke six languages,
inquired of the leader, "Jim, is the pace good enough?"

"Too slow," mumbled Peters, hoping once more to discourage his
shadow. Instead, with a cheerful wave, Zatopek sped by the
Englishman. Peters dropped out of the race after 20 miles with a
leg cramp. Zatopek galloped alone into the track stadium for
the finish, looking tortured as always but running swiftly as
the crowd chanted, "Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek!" He had been hoisted
to the shoulders of the Jamaican 4X100-meter relay team and was
signing autographs by the time silver medalist Reinaldo Gorno of
Argentina lurched into view. Zatopek had run the race in an
Olympic-record 2:23:03.2. (The men's marathon will be run in
Atlanta this morning.)

At 34 he tried to run the marathon at the 1956 Melbourne Games,
but this time, still recovering from a hernia operation, he
actually did run in pain and finished sixth. He retired from
competition after that, but his wife competed once more, winning
a silver in the javelin at the 1960 Rome Games. It was the
seventh Olympic medal for the Zatopeks (five golds and two

There were difficult times ahead, though. After the Soviet
suppression of a Czech bid for independence in 1968, Zatopek, an
ardent supporter of the insurrection, was deprived of his army
commission and expelled from the Communist party. He was forced
to work for a time as a manual laborer and then as a translator
of foreign sports publications for the Ministry of Sport. But
when freedom was finally achieved by his countrymen in '90, his
reputation was fully restored, and he remains a national hero to
this day.

B/W PHOTO: MARK KAUFFMAN After winning the 10,000 and 5,000 (above), Zatopek buried the field in the marathon. [Emil Zatopek]