There was a time when those wishing to delve into the sporting past were almost exclusively reliant upon catching a timely television documentary or, shock, horror, reading about it.
Nowadays, YouTube is the ‘go-to’ place for revisiting sporting history. In amongst far-reaching, vertiginous mountain ranges of videoed dross and nonsense, it is possible to unearth snippets of outstanding sporting moments; few are better than clips of Emile Zatopek, the Czech considered by many to be the greatest long-distance runner of all time.
His running style, generously described as ungainly, was likened to a man wrestling an octopus on a conveyor belt. Balding head tilted to one side, face screwed up in pain, Zatopek often appeared to be in great distress, yet because he knew he trained harder than any of his opponents (he’s credited with inventing interval training), he invariably came out on top.
Born in 1922, one of seven children, Zatopek left school at 14 to work in a local shoe factory, although it would be another five years before his running ability was spotted. In 1951, he became the first man to run 20km in under an hour; at the Helsinki Olympics the following year, he won the 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon, setting Olympic records in all three.
An insight into Zatopek’s political views came immediately before his departure for Helsinki after the father of Czech team-mate Stanislav Jungwirth was imprisoned for ‘political offences’. Jungwirth was simultaneously thrown off the team, whereupon Zatopek, who had won Olympic gold and silver in London four years previously, announced that: “If Standa does not go, nor will I.” In an oppressive communist state it was a brave move, but the authorities succumbed and allowed the pair to travel. His card, however, was permanently marked.
When Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, Zatopek, then a lieutenant-colonel in the Czech army, was a high-profile protester. His liberal stance resulted in him being thrown out of the Communist party, dismissed from the army and the loss of his army pension.
Following the collapse of the Berlin wall, Zatopek was rehabilitated and once more feted at home and abroad, but he had endured a dark period of exile.
Zatopek’s is a fascinating story of determination and drive. Forget YouTube. For the real tale, read the book