A Winner at the Finish Emil Zatopek had a storied distance-running career, but his life wasn't all glory

December 04, 2000

Emil Zatopek died last week in Prague of complications from a
stroke. Arguably the greatest distance runner in history, the
Czechoslovakian native won the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 meters
and the marathon at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, a feat that
has never been matched. He was 78 years old.

There was nothing else to do, so he ran. The Nazis had taken
control of his country in 1939, tanks in the streets, jackboots
marching in the dead of night, the routines of normal life
altered. Emil Zatopek became a champion mostly because he was
bored and hungry.

"There were no dances," he explained on a February day in 1990 in
his pleasant little house on a hill on the outskirts of Prague.
"Social gatherings were not allowed. Every night there was a
curfew at sunset. I didn't have a car. There was no meat to eat
most of the time, only vegetables."

He had found his sport late, at almost 19, when the director of
the Bata shoe factory where he worked forced him to run a
Sunday-afternoon road race. Finishing second in the first race of
his life, he wondered how good he could become. The Nazis
unknowingly gave him the perfect working conditions. "If there is
luxury, there is the danger of degeneration," Zatopek said. "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."

He ran to work. He ran home. He ran everywhere. When the curtains
were drawn at night, windows closed, he ran in place, miles and
miles in one spot. He would put his dirty clothes in his bathtub,
fill it with water, and run some more on top of the clothes. He
was a combination distance runner and washing machine.

There were no coaches to tell him what to do, so he experimented.
He ran in combat boots because he thought that would make him
feel faster on a race day, with the boots removed. He ran wearing
a gas mask to see if it helped control his breathing. He ran a
staggering number of miles, more mileage than anyone else was
running. He ran up and down stairs. He ran sprints for speed. He
ran through all of World War II.

At the 1948 Olympics in London, peace restored, Zatopek, now a
member of the new Czechoslovakian army, came away with a gold
medal and a wife. The medal was for the 10,000 meters, the first
gold ever won by a Czechoslovakian runner; the wife was Dana
Ingrova, who had finished seventh in the javelin, also for

In 1952 at Helsinki they became one of the great athletic couples
of all time. In the midst of Emil's three gold medals in eight
days--the press calling him the Human Locomotive and describing
his grim face and a running style that made him look as if he
were going to fall down, exhausted, with each step--Dana won a
gold in the javelin. Three gold medals for one man! Another for
his wife! All this was unprecedented.

"We would work out together," said Dana, who still lives in
Prague. "I would say, 'Couldn't we have a normal Sunday afternoon
once? A normal picnic?'" "Sure," Emil would reply. And off he
would go.

Zatopek retired after the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, where he
was sixth in the marathon. Dana retired after finishing a
surprising second in Rome in 1960 at age 37. For a while the
couple settled into an easy life of athletic royalty, legends
forever, but that ended in 1968, when the Czechoslovaks tried to
institute reforms. Zatopek and his wife were at the front of the
movement. They addressed crowds in Wenceslas Square. They signed
The Manifesto of 2000 Words, the document of defiance against the
Soviet Union. When the Soviet troops and tanks arrived and
regained control of the country, the signers of the manifesto
were punished.

Doctors and lawyers became street sweepers and dishwashers.
Zatopek was forced out of the army, expelled from the Communist
Party. The only job he could find for a time was with a surveying
team, traveling into the woods, living in a trailer, digging
ditches and carrying large bags of cement. For most of the next
22 years, until the second Czechoslovakian revolution, in
November 1989, the world was told that the country's most famous
athlete was "not available."

"I think sometimes about our lives, Emil's and mine," Dana said
on that 1990 day in the house in Prague, three months into the
second revolution. "They have been like this...."

She ran her hand through the air, up and down, up and down,
describing a roller coaster. At the finish, her husband next to
her on the couch, available again, her hand was held high.

B/W PHOTO: AP Triple play At Helsinki, Zatopek (here leading the 5,000) won gold medals in three distance events.

Zatopek became a champion because he was bored and hungry.

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