The Greatest Olympic Race You Never Heard About

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Emil Zátopek running with his usual grimace in the 1948 Olympics at Wembley Stadium in London.  Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images


Emil Zátopek was not exactly a natural runner. The “Czech locomotive,” with his awkward gait and ever-pained expression, became the winningest distance runner in the decade after World War II, primarily through hard work. We’re talking a marathon-a-day-of-400-meter-speedwork-in-heavy-snow-kind of hard (no exaggeration). Zátopek’s life story is an inspiration and an odyssey — a combination that makes for a page-turner. Richard Askwith’s comprehensive new biography, Today We Die a Little! is a worthy read, whether you’re a fan or a newcomer to the six-year undefeated champion of the 10,000 meter race. Here, in an exclusive excerpt of the book is a look at Zátopek in the 1948 Games in London, where he competes in two of the most exciting 10,000- and 5,000-meter races in Olympic history.  —Tyghe Trimble

You didn’t have to be young and in love to find something magical about the XIVth Olympic Games of the modern era. It was a moment of innocent hope such as the world has not often known. London, the host city, still bore the scars of the Blitz; most of those visiting for the Games will have seen worse damage at home.

Three years earlier, the world had been at war. Now, young people representing fifty-nine nations – 4,104 athletes in all – were coming together to do nothing more lethal than see who could be fastest, highest or strongest. Rarely has the Olympic ideal seemed more life-affirming.

Even so, it probably did no harm to be young and in love as well – and perhaps that is why no one ever caught the spirit of London 1948 more poetically than Emil, in his much-quoted observation (made nearly two decades later) that: ‘It was a liberation of spirit to be there in London. After those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing and the starvation, the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out. Suddenly, there were no frontiers, no more barriers, just people meeting together.’

Just over twenty-four hours [after the opening ceremony], at 6.40 p.m., Emil stood on the cinder track, at the starting line for the first Olympic athletics final for twelve years: the 10,000m. There were twenty-seven runners. It was another stifling day, and Emil had agreed in a pre-race conversation with his main rival, Viljo Heino, that it would be foolish to set off at a blistering pace.

But the race had been delayed by nearly two hours and when the gun was eventually fired, Heino, whether from the build-up of nerves or because it was now a little cooler, set off at something close to a sprint. Others followed, and Emil was soon among the backmarkers.

The temptation to accelerate must have been strong, but Emil had a plan. He knew, and had agreed with Karel Kněnický (his notional ‘coach’ while he was with the team), that seventy-one-second laps should be enough to produce a winning time. If he could stick to that pace, victory would follow, irrespective of Heino. But he needed to get it right.

To help him, a signal had been agreed. If the pace was correct, Kněnický, watching from the stands with the other Czechoslovak athletes, would wave a pair of white shorts each time Emil passed; if Emil needed to go faster, a red vest would be waved – a task delegated to Dana Ingrova, the javelin thrower with whom Emil had begun a relationship a few weeks earlier. So Emil stuck to his pace, and each of the first seven laps provoked the white shorts. Emil found this alarming, as each lap saw his rivals extending their advantage: first Heino, then Heinstrom, and then fourteen others before Emil’s struggling figure, apparently way off the pace.

The eighth lap saw yet another flutter of white. Emil was nearly eighty metres behind. Had he, or Kněnický, muddled up the signals? It took considerable willpower to resist the urge to go faster.

And then, to his relief, on the ninth lap Dana waved the red vest. Emil allowed himself to move up the field, progressing rapidly from seventeenth to fifth place. His sudden surge, made more conspicuous by the fact that many of the runners in front of him were starting to tire, caught the spectators’ attention. The best-informed among them will have known that, with 1948’s best 10,000m time to his credit, Emil was a contender for gold, but to most people he was just a clumsy Czechoslovak whose acceleration appeared to be costing him a superhuman amount of effort. As for Emil’s fans back in Czechoslovakia, it was at around this point that radio coverage of the race was abruptly cut off : the delay to the start of the race meant that its allotted time was over, and no one wanted to risk their job by messing with the schedule.

Back at Wembley, there was a buzz among the spectators: as the ninth lap ended, Emil took the lead. It was an intriguing sight. Was this a genuine medal contender – or just a comical foreigner, out of his depth among serious athletes, flailing his way to the front through a sudden burst of misguided enthusiasm?

Emil’s running style did little to encourage the idea that he was a potential world-beater. He was, as usual, grimacing and writhing, eyes screwed up and tongue occasionally protruding. As one observer put it: ‘He looked . . . as if he might be having a fit. At the very least, he seemed about to drop out.’

The positive side of these contortions was that they made Emil extraordinarily exciting to watch. You could see the effort, see the suffering, see the sacrifice and the struggle of the inner will. Anyone who has ever tried any kind of endurance running can recognise these concepts. To watch a runner compete at the highest possible level, and to get an almost physical sense of what he is feeling, is to be very involved indeed in a race. It is thrilling theatre.

And this is what seems to have happened on that warm Friday evening at Wembley. People noticed Emil, wearing the number 203, hit the front. They noticed his clawing and straining; and they noticed the small Czechoslovak contingent in the crowd (mostly teammates) chanting with growing enthusiasm: ‘Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek!’ A few non-Czechoslovaks joined in. Suddenly, Emil had the wind of the crowd’s excitement in his sails.

In the tenth lap, Heino seized back the lead. Emil let him keep it briefly; then, seeing the red vest again, put in another surge, opening up a thirty-metre lead. This brought him close to the tail-enders, a lap behind.

Soon he was actually lapping other runners. Spectators, officials, even athletes struggled to keep track. Emil pressed on confidently, but with one nagging doubt in his mind: he had no idea where Heino was. He decided to ask a trackside official – he and Dana had taught themselves a little English in preparation for the Games – but it took him a while to remember how to formulate the question. Eventually, he asked: ‘Where is Heino?’ – and received the answer ‘Heino is out’. Exhausted by his excessive early pace, and demoralized by Emil’s second seizure of the lead, Heino had left the track after sixteen laps.

The final nine laps were a glorious demonstration of fearless, rampant dominance. Runner after runner was lapped (including the future marathon world record holder, Jim Peters). Emil just kept on pressing. True, he found time to smile and pat Abdullah Ben Said gratefully on the shoulder when the French runner moved out of a lane to allow Emil to lap him more easily; but then he was off again, driving himself furiously forwards as if he were engaged in a desperate battle with an invisible rival just a pace or two behind.

In fact, he was so far ahead that the race officials became confused. The bell for the final lap was rung a lap early. Emil was composed enough to ignore it, and had enough in reserve to run a final lap of 66.6 seconds – the fastest of the race. He crossed the line in 29:59.6, lowering the Olympic record by twelve seconds. The runner-up, Alain Mimoun, was 47.8 seconds behind, with Sweden’s Bertil Albertsson a further six seconds behind him. The irrelevance of the other placings was emphasised by the chaos of the official results. Positions were recorded for only the first eleven runners (two of which were later reversed) and times only for the first eight. Britain’s Stan Cox, who came seventh, was later told that he should have come fifth as he had run an extra lap. Perhaps the most telling statistic was that all but two of the twenty-seven starters had either been lapped or failed to finish. Rarely has an Olympic victory been so crushing.

For the Czechoslovak team, the sound of their anthem being played as Emil stood on the winner’s rostrum was overwhelmingly moving. ‘We all had tears in our eyes,’ according to Dana. Emil exchanged warm congratulations with Mimoun and Albertsson, then returned to the Uxbridge barracks feeling distinctly pleased with himself. Congratulatory telegrams were already arriving from Czechoslovakia. His insubordination at the opening ceremony was forgiven: as someone pointed out, Heino had stayed out of the sun, and look what it had done for him.

The 5,000-meter final came two days later, on Bank Holiday Monday. The previous day, Emil and Dana had gone sight-seeing, visiting the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul’s in glorious sunshine. But now the golden summer weather changed abruptly. For much of the day, torrential rain pounded Wembley’s cinder track. By the time of the final – just after 5 p.m. – it was little better than mud. Frenzied attempts to clear the puddles had little effect. Many spectators huddled beneath the stands for shelter until the last minute, then emerged into the downpour wearing makeshift hats of plastic or, in some cases, programmes. It is hard to imagine that many of the athletes were in high spirits as the cold rain lashed down on them on the starting line.

Väinö Mäkelä led for the first lap; then Emil took over, driving into the wind and rain while his rivals clustered behind him. He hoped that someone else might take on the burden of leading after a lap or two. No one did. So he pressed on, keeping the pace testing without ever really seeming to take it up to the next, destructive level. This was a high-risk strategy: Gaston Reiff and Wim Slijkhuis both had faster finishes than he did. If he wanted to beat them by front-running, he needed to stretch them to breaking point.

To most of the spectators it looked as though Emil was winning, and perhaps Emil, hearing the chants of ‘Zá-to-pek!’ ring out again, agreed with them. Later he confessed that his 10,000m triumph had left him ‘puffed up like a frog’. Watching the old television footage, you wouldn’t say that he looks complacent. The face still grimaces, while the miseries of the weather are obvious: every athlete’s lower half is black with muddy cinders. Yet perhaps there is a lack of urgency about Emil’s movements, and a lack of crispness to his foot placement. By his standards, he doesn’t seem to be hurrying – and nor do those behind him.

With four laps to go, Reiff blasted Emil’s comfort zone to pieces. The Belgian put on a dramatic spurt that became a 67.8-second lap: two seconds faster than the previous one. Soon he was thirty or forty metres ahead. Emil, demoralised, was unable to respond.

Sensing Emil’s vulnerability, Slijkhuis passed him, too. With two laps to go, Slijkhuis was thirty metres ahead, with Reiff a further thirty metres ahead of him. Emil was clearly a beaten man. He was still clawing and flailing, but it felt as if he was going through the motions.

There were all sorts of possible explanation. His 10,000m gold had taken the edge off his desire. He was struggling with the slushy cinders. Or perhaps he simply didn’t have the stomach for a fight when the weather was foul and the race wasn’t going his way. Whatever the reason, he seemed to be running on treacle.

Then he woke up.

There is no other word for it. One moment Emil is asleep on his feet; the next, he isn’t.

You can see him shaking himself into action, jerking his arms almost crossly, his eyes still screwed up as if he were in a world of his own. He later said that he asked himself at this point whether he had come to London just to run until he was tired, or whether he had come to win. He decided that, if nothing else, he would fight Slijkhuis for the silver. Closing in, he realised that Slijkhuis was tiring, and he began to suspect that Reiff , though still about fifty metres ahead, was tiring, too. And he realized that, as he put it, ‘No one was wearing the gold medal yet.’

He began to sprint.

It was not, of course, a smooth, effortless glide. It was a Zátopek sprint: a thrashing, gesticulating life-or-death struggle – as if, to quote one sportswriter, he were ‘possessed by devils’. By the time he had passed Slijkhuis, everyone in the stadium had noticed – everyone, that is, except Reiff .

Incredibly, Emil closed the gap. Forty metres, thirty metres, twenty metres – surely he wasn’t actually going to do it? As with his previous races, there were only a few dozen Czechoslovaks in the stadium, but it felt like tens of thousands, most of them on their feet by now and shrieking with excitement. By the time Reiff was rounding the last bend, the screams were overwhelming. In the words of the BBC journalist Rex Alston: ‘The roar of cheers from the crowd was almost deafening. Stride by stride he brought Reiff back to him.’ Finally, Reiff looked around – and saw a whirling blur of red-vested Czechoslovak bearing down on him, scarcely ten metres behind. He roused himself into a desperate sprint, but Emil continued to close: nine metres, eight metres, seven . . . Harold Abrahams, Olympic gold medallist in 1924 and contributor to the official report of the 1948 London organising committee, described the spectacle as ‘phenomenal’.

The line came too soon. Reiff was still a stride ahead as he crossed it. Another couple of metres and Emil must have overtaken. But a stride was enough. Reiff was Olympic champion, and Emil had to make do with silver. Their times, 14:17.6 and 14:17.8 respectively, were both inside the old Olympic record.

For most of those present, the result barely mattered, and the times even less. This was one of the gutsiest sporting performances most of them had ever seen. Shortly after the finish, Emil took off his shoes to relieve his sore feet. A few minutes later, he discovered that someone had stolen them – presumably as a souvenir of an unforgettable Olympic moment. It was a funny kind of consolation, but it did perhaps illustrate the extent to which Emil had fought his way into the hearts of thousands of spectators. His stubborn, never-say-die heroism appealed particularly to a British public for whom Churchill’s speeches of wartime defiance were still fresh in the memory.

In the Czechoslovak camp, however, it was a different matter. Everyone knew that it could have been better. Especially Emil.

It was too late, though. Years later, Emil claimed to have consoled himself with the thought that he would do better next time – before realising that it would be four whole years before there was another Olympic Games. Then he turned his thoughts to Dana, and spent the remainder of their stay in London consoling himself with her company.

Postscript: In the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsink, Zatopek came back to win gold in the 5,000, 10,000m, and, for good measure, the marathon, breaking Olympic records in each event. 

The previous excerpt was from: Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time by Richard Askwith. Reprinted with permission from Nation Books.