There can always be a debate about who is the greatest distance runner ever. But there can never be an argument about who could have combined two track events and a marathon in a single Olympics and still won them all.
Emil Zatopek, the ‘Human Locomotive’ from the then Czechoslovakia, had that distinction in the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.
That feat has remained unmatched through the years in the Olympics or in any other championship. Not even the great Paavo Nurmi had achieved that distinction in his career that preceded Zatopek’s.
As a boy Zatopek had developed his own training programme based on what he had read about Nurmi’s work-outs.
Once he joined the army, Zatopek was able to devote more time for his punishing training schedule. In 1946 he was selected for the Czech national team in the European championships and in 1948 he went to his first Olympics.
The legend begins
The Zatopek legend started with the London Olympics, where he won the 10,000 metres, which he was running only for the second time, and claimed the silver in the 5000m behind Belgian Gaston Reiff.
Came Helsinki and Zatopek, by then having established himself as the world’s leading 10,000m runner, with a world record of 29:02.6 in Turku, Finland, in August, 1950, was the favourite at least in the longer distance event on the track.
He won the 10,000m on July 20 in an Olympic record of 29:17.0 and timed 14:06.6, another Olympic record in winning the 5000 four days later.
In both events, French man Alain Mimoun came second. Zatopek had not run a marathon till then. He entered that event at the last moment.
Just three days after completing his track programme, he lined up at the start of the marathon. He did not have much idea about pacing that gruelling 42km event.
At the 20km mark, he asked Britain’s Jim Peters, then marathon world best holder, whether the pace was too slow.
Getting no answer, he speeded away. “It was not the distance that frightened me but the possibility of a certain pace which nobody chose to impose,” he was quoted as saying about his victory in another Olympic record of 2:23:03.2.
In his career, Zatopek bettered world records over various distances 18 times.
Between 1948 and 1954 he remained unbeaten in the 10,000m through 38 races. Zatopek died on November 22, 2000 at the age of 78 following complications arising out of pneumonia.
He combined two track events and a marathon in a single Olympics and still won them all