Racing without relenting
Czech Locomotive made a long run into hearts of enthusiasts across the globe.
If sport epitomises human grace, then look elsewhere; for when running, he looked as if he was "wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt." But if it reflects endurance then he was the standard. The only one with a long-distance "grand slam" – golds in 5,000 m, 10,000 m and the marathon (the first of his life) in a single Olympics – Emil Zatopek was proof that sportsmen are not always born, but can become champions with effort.
Named the "Czech Locomotive" for perhaps wheezing and panting while running or rather leading over his competitors, strung back on the track like railway carriages, he was not only famous for his five Olympic (and countless other) medals and 18 world records or his brutal, training methods – running in heavy army boots in all weather or his ungainly, flailing running and pain-contorted face (he retorted that looks don't win races).
Zatopek (1922-2000), whose 95th birth anniversary was on September 19, is equally known for spreading goodwill at the Olympics and other sporting meets, learning several languages and striking up friendships with athletes and others – even Sri Chinmoy, whom he greeted with a namaskar – from all over, and being free with advice and assistance to all, even rivals. And this was reciprocated. After he won the marathon at the 1952 Helsinki Games – his third gold in eight days – the Jamaican 4x400 relay team picked him up and chaired him across the stadium in a lap of honour. But before the Games, Zatopek had put his own career on the line for a "politically unreliable" colleague who was not allowed to participate. He threatened to pull himself out and finally had his way. He was marked for punishment on return, but he had become too famous.
There is one telling episode that sums him. Seeing off Australian runner Ron Clarke who came to Prague for a race in 1966, he accompanied him till the stairs of his plane where he pressed a small brown-paper package into his hand. Clarke opened it later to find that Zatopek – knowing that he had never fulfilled his desire to win an Olympic gold medal – had gifted him one of his own from the Helsinki "grand slam," with a note saying, "Because you deserve it." But the great Czech runner, who was famous for quotes like "If you want to win something, run the 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run a marathon" or "Great is the victory, but the friendship is all the greater," met his match on this count in his wife – javelin thrower Dana Zatopkova.
At Helsinki, as he tried to take some credit for Dana winning the gold in her discipline, saying his gold in the 5,000 m had "inspired" her, she retorted: "Really? Okay, go inspire some other girl and see if she throws a javelin fifty metres!"
Born on September 19, 1922, in a lower-middle-class family in the town of Koprivnice, Zatopek, the seventh child, was independent, keen to try everything, but displayed no sporting ambitions or skills, which only manifested themselves when he turned 18. Working in a Bata shoe factory in a nearby city since 1937, he was in 1940, made to run in a race, by the strict factory sports coach, despite his protests. "So I had to run, and when I got started, I felt I wanted to win. But I only came in second. That was the way it started." Joining a local athletic club, he developed his own training regimen, based on what he knew about the great Finnish Olympian Paavo Nurmi, as the Second World War raged, he broke various national records in long-distance races. After the war ended, he joined the army and participated in various European athletic meets and came to wider public notice from the 1948 London Olympics. Picking up the gold in the 10,000 metres one day in blinding sunshine and then narrowly missing in the 5,000 metres in a rainstorm to bag the silver, Zatopek won the hearts of the viewers. He bettered his performance in 1952 but was sadly beyond his prime by the 1956 edition in Melbourne, where, in the marathon lineup, he quipped "Men, today we die a little." He finished sixth.
The latter years were not too good, for his pro-reformist stand during the "Prague Spring" and even during the Soviet-led invasion (immortalised in an Adidas ad) made him persona non grata for the hardline regime that came later compelling him to work in the countryside. Though rehabilitated, he was never the same or free from some political controversy till his death – and even after it. Yet, he continues to be honoured, nationally and internationally, being one of the first 12 featured in IAAF's Hall of Fame and deemed the greatest runner of all time. IANS
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)