1952 Olympic hero Zatopek emerges from decades in shadows

May 05, 1991|By Julie Cart | Julie Cart,Los Angeles Times

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.

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