Five weeks from now the whole of the sporting world will commemorate the 17th death anniversary of long distance medallist Emil Zatopek, one of the 20th century’s most loved athletes and best-known Czech.
Zatopek, a four-time Olympic champion died on November 22, 2000 in a Prague military hospital after a stroke he suffered in late October at age 78.
Zatopek is remembered for his feat on July 24, 1952 at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium here he had just won the 5,000 meters, his third Olympic gold medal. A few days earlier, he also ruled the 10,000 meter to go along with a gold and a silver in 10,000 meters and 5,000 meters four years ago in London.
In Helsinki, he left the 5,000-meter medal ceremony after the Czech National Anthem was played in his honor when he noticed that the women entries for the final in the javelin throw were entering the field.
He rushed over to his wife, Dana, one of the contestants and proudly showed her his latest gold medal.
“Emil, let me have it. I will hold it for good luck, “ the wife said. Emil obliged and handed his medal to her.
On her first throw, Dana broke the Olympic record and her effort held up the rest of the way as the Zatopeks became he first husband and wife ever to win Olympic medals in separate events and on the same day at that.
The couple celebrated their double victory that night. Dana was exuberant and contented in savoring the twin victories in the remaining days in Helsinki. But Emil showed boredom though. Although he was already the hero of the Games with his triumphs in the 10,000 and 5,000 meters he felt tired in frequently meeting with the media.
At one interview, he told one reporter he wanted to run the marathon. When told that Jim Peters of Great Britain was the heavy favorite to win the marathon, Emil introduced himself to the Briton an asked him if he can run with him. The surprised Peters nodded in agreement.
“The pace in the beginning was very fast. I felt so tired and Jim was running like he could do this forever, “ Zatopek recalled. “I couldn’t believe what was happening, so I asked him if the pace was too fast.”
“No, it’s too slow,” he answered. “I believed him so, rather than wait for him, I ran faster and left him behind,” he said.
Newspaper accounts of the race had it that Zatopek kept on running and when he entered the stadium, he heard the 80,000 spectators screaming “Zatopek … Zatopek … Zatopek …” by way of welcoming him as the winner of his third gold medal.
Upon crossing the finish line, somebody told him Jim Peters collapsed in exhaustion along the way and had to be taken to the hospital.
But for all the greatness attached to Zatopek, nothing could compare to his meeting Ron Clarke of Australia, who was favored to win all the gold medals at stake in his events in the 1964 and 1968 Games in Mexico only to bring home a bronze medal in the end.
Zatopek himself admitted Clarke was one of the greatest runners of all-time who had records of winning and setting world records, 18 done exact, whenever he ran… except in the Olympics.
Once, while Clarke was visiting Zatopek, the great Czech handed him a small box the Australian believed was a gift. He told Clarke not to open the box until he’s on the plane going home.
When Clarke opened the package, he saw inside was one of his friend’s gold medals. Attached to it was a card which read: “Dear Ron, I have won four gold medals, It is only right that you should have one of them. Your friend, Emil.”