Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 17 Jan 2009 05:51:04 -0500

Hero of the Half-Century


[rerun from January 2000 RW]

No one now running can remember the turn of the 20th century. Some of us, though, are old enough and long enough connected to the sport to have memories reaching back a half-century. I'm happy to make that claim.

The first foreign name to pierce my consciousness in family talk about track was Emil Zatopek. He had won the 10,000 at the first post-World War II Olympics, then broke records repeatedly the next few years. He peaked at the 1952 Games when he won the 5000, 10,000 and marathon -- a triple never accomplished before and not since.

To me Zatopek is the finest runner of the past 50 years. I remember him that way for how he once raced, but more so for how he continued to live and give.

I never expected to meet the great man from a then-remote land, Czechoslovakia. But by chance we came together briefly while waiting to board separate flights out of Munich after the 1972 Olympics.

He blew kisses to friends outside the boarding area and spoke his last words of thanks to them in German. Working up courage, I approached him.

"Uh, excuse me, are you Emil Zatopek?" I asked, already knowing he was but not knowing if he understood English.

"Why yes, Zatopek," he answered without missing a beat. "And what is your name, please?" It meant nothing to him, but he still took time to talk for 20 minutes.

Word quickly spread through my tour group that we were in the presence of track royalty. Passengers dropped out of line to shake his hand and ask for his autograph.

Then 50 years old, he had come to Munich as a guest of the Olympic Committee to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his triple. "It is odd," he said, "to have all this... how do you say it?... acclaim. In my country I am just a common man... a nobody."

Zatopek didn't talk politics, but he was officially a "nobody" in Czechoslovakia. When a revolt against the Soviets broke out in 1968, he took the wrong side in the struggle and lost his rank as an army colonel.

The national hero was reduced to working as a garbage collector and then as a street-sweeper, jobs normally reserved in his country for the mentally retarded. When Czechs in his hometown learned of this, they rushed out to help him carry the cans and push the broom.

He said, "I am now a simple worker. I drill for mineral water."

Zatopek excused himself and walked toward the plane that would take him to Prague, back to his simple life as a "nobody" whose name will forever live in Olympic history. I've never seen him again but have followed him from afar through news stories.

He outlasted the vindictive government in his country (now the Czech Republic). The current rulers realize what a treasure he is, and allow him to accept acclaim freely. By all accounts he handles it well.

One of his finest moves was a quiet one. Ron Clarke, a frequent setter of world records but never an Olympic medalist, came to visit the man who had won so many.

As they parted, Zatopek handed the Australian a small package and told him to open it later. Clarke's worries that he was smuggling something out of the country vanished when he found a gold medal with a note saying, "You earned this."

The Fifty-Plus Fitness Association, based in California, gives an annual award named for Emil Zatopek, its first recipient. Other winners have included Ron Clarke and Johnny Kelley.

In 1999 at the Fifty-Plus Fitness weekend, I fidgeted through the awards-giving that preceded my talk. Dr. Walter Bortz announced the last and biggest award: "And the winner of the Zatopek Award for 1999 is..." Then he floored me by calling my name.

I hadn't known of this and hadn't composed a proper acceptance statement. Now I can say there could be no finer memory of the last half-century than to be mentioned just this once in the same sentence as the finest runner of those years.

UPDATE: Emil Zatopek died in 2000 at age 78.

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