Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek!

The following is adapted from Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time by Richard Askwith (2016). Reprinted with permission from Nation Books.


Let us start at the summit: the golden minutes for which all his previous struggles can be seen as preparation, and from which all that followed might be seen as a descent. It is around 5.50 p.m., on 27 July 1952. The streets of Helsinki’s Töölö district are buzzing, the pavements packed with excited spectators, chattering and cheering.

Some have been there all afternoon, revelling in the party atmosphere and the chance to see history made. The weather has been kind: still but not stifling. In the Olympic stadium, off Hammarskjöldintie, 68,700 people are buzzing too, their attention focused not on the track – where the 4 x 400m relay has recently finished – but on a huge electronic scoreboard which is providing periodic updates on the times and positions of the leading runners in the final event of the XVth Olympic Games: the marathon. The latest (and last) bulletin indicates that, with just over two kilometres to go, he is two and a quarter minutes ahead of his nearest rival.

For the next nine minutes or so, only those lucky enough to have good vantage points in the street really know what is going on. The rest fall back on rumour and imagination. But there does not seem to be a single person watching, in the stadium or out on the streets, who hopes for any outcome other than this: that Emil Zátopek should keep going for a few more minutes, all the way to the end.

The unanimity is startling. Sixty-nine different nations have sent athletes to the Games, and most have sent spectators too, although the majority of those watching are Finnish. Yet somehow everyone wants the Czechoslovak to win.

The unanimity is all the more startling when you consider the context. The world is divided, dangerously so, by an ideological iron curtain, still quite new, that stretches from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Two superpowers, one led by an increasingly deranged Josef Stalin, glower at one another across it. Helsinki has taken the unusual step of providing the 4,955 competing athletes with two distinct Olympic villages to reflect this divide: one for the Communist bloc and the other for the rest. George Orwell’s line about sport being ‘war minus the shooting’ has rarely felt more apt.

Yet somehow, after two weeks of competition, it is ending with this: sports lovers of countless races, creeds and political convictions coming together in one joyous family, to celebrate the achievements and personality of a single extraordinary athlete.

It is not all Zátopek’s doing. There have been gestures of goodwill from other athletes whose youthful instinct to fraternise has proved too strong for the ideological taboos that are supposed to restrain them. But somehow Zátopek has come to embody the idea that these Games are a celebration of our common humanity. Rumours about him have been slipping out all fortnight, not just about his sensational racing and insane training routines but also about his warmth, his sportsmanship, his spontaneous generosity. He is said to have given up his bed, the night before one of his big races, to a visiting Australian with nowhere to sleep. He gave his socks to his English rival Gordon Pirie. He shares his training secrets with anyone who cares to ask. His gregariousness has prompted him to learn half a dozen languages – some say more.

His public utterances have a wit that belies Western stereotypes of robotic Communist drones. On the track, he radiates decency and charm. He talks to rivals, offers pats of encouragement, takes his turn in the lead even when it is not in his interests to do so.

Yet somehow he has also found the steel not just to win but to win emphatically – some would say majestically. In the past eight days he has already won two Olympic golds, achieving the elusive distance-running double of winning both the 5,000 and the 10,000m. And now he is minutes away from completing a treble which everyone watching must realise will almost certainly never be achieved again – assuming that it can be achieved even once.

That is the history the crowds have come to witness. It is the biggest challenge of Zátopek’s life, and it seems as though most of the world is holding its breath, willing him to succeed.

The odd thing is, the man who has elicited this unprecedented groundswell of goodwill is not some godlike being who skims over the ground with easy grace. He is small and a little ungainly. He has wide shoulders, a furrowed brow and an insect-like way of sticking out his elbows, especially the right one. A receding hairline makes him look older than his twenty-nine years.

As for his running style, he makes such a meal of it that people have been commenting on it for years: the way he grimaces as he runs, rolls his head, sticks out his tongue, claws at the air, clutches at his chest with his left hand, sometimes even seeming to swing his shoulders as he runs. Sportswriters love him for this, as it provides an excuse for some enjoyable phrase-making: ‘He runs like a man who has just been stabbed in the heart’; ‘. . . as if there was a scorpion in each shoe’; ‘. . . as if tortured by internal demons’; ‘. . . as if he might be having a fit’; ‘. . . like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt’. He is used to such criticisms, and has often laughed them off : ‘I am not talented enough to run and smile at the same time.’

Those who understand such matters will point to the contrasting smoothness of his movements below the waist: the metronomic efficiency of his short, fast strides. None the less, it is hard to see how his upper writhings can be helping him. In fact, if appearances were all, he would be a laughing stock: an early precursor of such celebrated Olympic no-hopers as Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel.

But over the past week he has shown beyond all possible doubt that appearances are not everything. He is living, thrilling proof that what really matters is what is inside: the blazing spirit that allows a man, flesh and blood like the rest of us, to challenge the accepted limits of human aspiration.

This is, by the way, the first time he has ever run a marathon.

If that seems improbable now, it seemed improbable then. That’s not to say no one expected him to be leading at this stage. His admirers believe that anything is possible where Emil is concerned. But there is something awe-inspiring about the fact that he is even trying. The audacity of the man: that is part of his greatness.

A flame of fresh information blows its way up Vauhtitie, and then round the corner into Hammarskjöldintie, gathering in intensity as it spreads. Zátopek is still leading; his lead is growing; he is almost in the stadium; he is coming.

Then, behind the flame, comes the roar of cheering – and, beyond that, the man himself.

Step by painful step, he drives himself forward to the stadium tunnel, vanishes, and then, to a longed-for fanfare of trumpets, emerges inside the arena, leaning almost forty-five degrees as he turns on to the track to minimise loss of momentum. The eruption of sound threatens to blow the skeletal runner off his feet. Nearly 70,000 people are standing, ecstatic, bellowing their approval; and the roar finally resolves itself into a chant in spine-chilling unison: ‘Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek!’

His grimacing face looks more agonised than ever. His sodden red vest clings to the outside of his shorts. His eyes seem glazed; his jaw is clenched. He looks tired: tired and empty as death. Every step seems a struggle – not in the sportswriters’ sense but in a real, palpably excruciating way. You can almost feel the jarring in his battered legs as his thinly shod feet pound against the track. His whole body seems to be crying out: when will this stop? Yet not for one moment does he relax his rhythm.

The number of Czechoslovaks in the stadium can be counted in dozens. Yet each spectator is urging Emil Zátopek on with the fervour we usually reserve for our own most cherished national heroes. Among them are Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kolehmainen, the Finnish founding fathers of modern distance running, and – although perhaps cheering with a shade less enthusiasm than most – the British marathon world record holder and pre-race favourite, Jim Peters, who was brought back to the stadium in the press coach after dropping out with six miles to go.

‘Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek!’ Emil could not slow down his rhythm if he wanted to. There may never before have been a moment when people from so many different nations have come together in such a joyous celebration of sporting achievement. One of them, Juan Antonio Samaranch, a future president of the International Olympic Committee, will still be talking about it half a century later: ‘At that moment, I understood what the Olympic spirit means.’ But for a British journalist, J. Armour Milne, even that is not enough: ‘All of us shared the common conviction that we were witnessing the greatest happening in athletics history.’

As he crosses the line, the gaunt runner can just manage a smile: curiously boyish in its transparent relief. He waves away the photographers, hobbles off the track, sits on the ground and removes his shoes from his bloodied feet. For a moment he seems overwhelmed, oblivious to the fact that he has not only achieved an all but impossible third gold but also slashed more than six minutes off the Olympic record – the third record he has broken in eight days. Then he is back on his feet, shuffling towards the stands to be kissed tenderly on the mouth by the gold medal winner in the women’s javelin – who also happens to be his wife. Someone gives him an apple, which he gobbles greedily. Then he waits at the finishing line to offer congratulations and slices of orange to his fellow runners, the first of whom arrives more than two and a half minutes behind the winner – and five of whom have, like Zátopek, broken the previous Olympic record.

Minutes later, the Jamaican 4 x 400m relay team, who not long before set their own Olympic record, pick Zátopek up and chair him around the stadium on a lap of honour without parallel in Olympic history. And then, some time afterwards, Zátopek is standing on the winner’s rostrum, listening to the Czechoslovak national anthem being played in his honour for the third time in eight days.

The final notes melt into applause. Zátopek congratulates his fellow medallists and then embarks on a weary, joyful lap of honour. He can hear tens of thousands of Finns calling him by their own special name for him, ‘Satu Peka’ – except that this time they are chanting ‘Näkemiin, Satu Peka. He has taught himself enough Finnish to know what this means. They are saying goodbye.

And Emil Zátopek, basking in the world’s adulation after pulling off the greatest feat in the history of distance running, feels suddenly overwhelmingly sad, because—

But to understand that, you need to know how Emil got there.


There were those in the Czechoslovak camp who felt that Emil should skip the marathon. He had reached his target. Why risk the loss of face that would come from a defeat? Emil later justified his insistence on going ahead with another famous piece of Zátopekian half-jest: ‘I decided that the ratio of medals in the Zátopek household was insufficiently weighted in my favour.’

But there were other, more obvious motives. He had conquered the mountain that he had feared: the one that threatened to expose his weakness. Now he had a chance to make history: to show the world that what others considered impossible could in fact be done. This was the kind of challenge he lived for.

Even so, when the final day of the Games dawned on Sunday, 27 July 1952, it would have been odd if he hadn’t been a little on edge. His body had enough experience of running very long distances to suspect that it was about to be put through the wringer. As for his mind: by defying those who urged him to avoid this final test he had once again stuck his neck out. If he was going to be in it, he needed to win it.

He spent much of the morning trying to learn to run slowly. He had calculated that the Olympic record for the marathon was equivalent to eighty-five-second laps of a 400m track. Assuming the record was likely to be improved a bit, he decided to aim for eighty-three-second-lap pace. But when his teammate Jaroslav Šourek (the Czechoslovak marathon champion) timed him, he kept running too fast. Even keeping over eighty seconds seemed beyond him.

Finally, he came up with a different strategy. The Englishman Jim Peters was the strong favourite. He had set a new world record, 2:20:42.2, just weeks earlier, and, said the newspapers, he would be wearing the number 187. If Emil stuck with him, he would be unlikely to go far wrong.

When the athletes assembled that afternoon at the starting line, Emil approached the tall, dour, pale-skinned man wearing 187. He did not want to discover later on that the papers had made a mistake.

‘How do you do?’ he said. ‘Are you Peters?’ Peters confirmed it. ‘I am Zátopek,’ said Emil. It barely needed saying. Half the world now knew that Zátopek wore 903 on his red shirt. In any case, Peters had raced against Emil before. Four years earlier, in London, he had been so demoralised by being lapped by Emil in the 10,000m final that he had given up running altogether for a while, before returning at the longer distance. It is unlikely that he relished the prospect of having a talkative, world-beating Czechoslovak for company for the next two hours or so.

None the less, polite words were exchanged. Then, at 3.28 p.m., the race began. The sixty-six runners, who had lined up in four rows, began by running three and a half laps of the track. Aslam, the barefooted Pakistani, was first to show in front, but Peters soon forced his way to the front, and by the time the first runners emerged from the stadium he was over a hundred metres ahead of a group that included the Englishman Stan Cox; the Swede Gustaf Jansson; and Emil.

Emil was unsure how to respond to Peters’s aggressive start. He was wary of burning himself out: those laps felt much faster than eighty-three seconds. Behind him, all sorts of dangerous, experienced runners were lurking: notably the Argentinians Delfo Cabrera and Reinaldo Gorno, the Korean Choi Yun-chil, and a third Englishman, Geoff Iden. But what if Peters just kept on drawing ahead? Emil discussed the problem with Jansson – which was strange, since they had no language in common – and they concluded that Peters must at all costs be prevented from increasing his lead to 200m.

As they made their way northwards and eastwards through Helsinki’s tree-lined streets, with a slight breeze behind them and thousands of spectators on either side, Emil, Jansson and Cox established themselves as the second-placed group. It was a straightforward out-and-back course: 41.95km in non-imperial reckoning. The weather was pleasant – 18°C – and the pace, though exceptionally fast by marathon standards, was still nothing special by Emil’s. The difficulty was to run sensibly while keeping Peters in sight.

By the time they had passed the main Olympic village at Käpylä, Peters had a nineteen-second lead. He had run the first five kilometres in 15:43, equivalent to a track pace of seventy-five seconds a lap. After Emil’s group, the nearest challengers, a further eighteen seconds behind, were Gorno, Yakov Moskachenkov (of the Soviet Union), and Doroteo Flores (of Guatemala). As they headed out into the countryside on highway number 137, the field was strung out. Anyone with aspirations to a medal already had a fight on his hands.

The roadside was still lined with Finns, often two deep. Many had bicycles and picnics. They clapped politely as each runner passed. A bus just behind the leaders carried selected journalists, with a separate open car for photographers; sometimes one or other drew alongside, and Emil was seen to exchange pleasantries with those on board. Everyone agreed that he looked relaxed and strong.

The landmarks rolled by: Pakinkylä, Tuomarinkylä, the Vantaa river and its bridge. By ten kilometres (Malmi), Peters had slowed very slightly. Jansson was sixteen seconds behind him, with Emil just a second back in third.

The city suburbs thinned; buildings gave way to green fields of newly mown hay; but still the road was lined with applauding Finns. By the time runners were approaching Helsinki parish church (fourteen kilometres), Emil and Jansson had made significant inroads on Peters’s lead; by fifteen kilometres Jansson had caught up. Soon afterwards Emil, too, was running alongside him. Emil, inevitably, started talking. His exchange with Peters is one of the most famous in sporting history, but it has been repeated in so many variations that it is hard to say authoritatively precisely what was said. Peters gave one version, which he admitted might have been clouded by exhaustion; Emil, characteristically, gave several. Jansson, the only other witness, did not speak English.

The most plausible sequence is this:

Emil: ‘The pace, Jim – is it too fast?’

Peters (irritably): ‘No, it has to be like this.’


Emil: ‘Are you sure it is not too fast?’

Peters (with what he later described as Cockney defiance): ‘Actually, it’s too slow.’

Soon afterwards, Peters moved to the other side of the road, the implication being that he would not welcome further questioning. Emil took this as a sign of weakness; he had noticed, in any case, that Peters looked more haggard than he had at the start (‘like a boxer after the third round’), and he sensed, correctly, that he was struggling.

Emil did not – as legend suggests – immediately go speeding into the lead, but he did feel emboldened to keep pushing the pace. Just as Peters was ready to ease off , Emil made sure that he couldn’t. The next five kilometres offered a classic demonstration of a distance runner being tortured by a pace that is just a tiny bit too fast for him.

By the twenty-kilometre mark, at Ruotskylä, Peters was ten seconds behind, although he had made back three by the time they turned at Mätäkivi. Emil and Jansson began the homeward journey side by side. No one was talking now. Even the wide-eyed Finns who watched them from the roadside seemed to do so largely in silence. There is something dreamlike about the black and white footage that survives, with pale skies, still pine forests and a straight, featureless, seemingly endless road. Perhaps it seemed dreamlike to Emil, too; he was, at the very least, in unknown territory. He had been running for longer than he had ever run in a competitive race before, and he was barely past the halfway mark. He had no real idea of what the rest would feel like; no idea what ordeal awaited him; no idea how best to manage his failing strength.

He later claimed that, around this point, he felt an almost irresistible urge to give up, and was deterred only by the thought that he had no money in his pocket with which to get back to Helsinki. If that seems unconvincing, it is almost certainly true that he was in pain. The easy chatting of the early kilometres had given way to dogged endurance (although he still exchanged the odd word with the accompanying press pack). Like every marathon runner, he found himself appreciating, from the gut, what a monstrous, unnatural distance 26.2 miles really is for running. His mouth was dry. His feet felt sore. He had bought some new shoes specially for the race – some say Karhu (a Finnish brand), others Adidas (disguised for political reasons) – and although he had followed the advice of the American 10,000m runner Fred Wilt to soften them in advance with cooking grease, they were still basically just track shoes with the spikes removed. There was none of the cushioning that modern road runners take for granted. To make matters worse, Emil had made a marathon runner’s rookie mistake – of checking his socks for irregularities with insufficient paranoia. First one foot, then the other, developed a blister. He was still running within himself in terms of aerobic exertion, yet his body was taking a beating.

As they passed the refreshment station at twenty-five kilometres, Emil and Jansson were offered half a lemon each. They had ignored all the previous refreshment stations, not wishing to lose precious time, but Jansson’s supporters seemed to feel that their man could do with a boost. Jansson took the proffered fruit, but Emil, who had no experience of eating while racing, felt it would be too much of a risk to try it for the first time now. Instead (he claimed later), he decided to see what happened to Jansson. If the lemon appeared to help him, at the next station Emil would take one, or perhaps several.

The self-denial hurt. Shortly afterwards, however, they came to an uphill stretch (one of several on the middle part of the course). By the time he reached the top Emil realised that Jansson had slipped behind – and appeared to have a stitch. Emil kicked on, his thirst to some extent off set by the satisfaction of having made the right decision. And then . . . well, after that, all that remained was to keep going.

To the sportswriters on the bus – none of whom, as far as I am aware, had ever run a marathon – perhaps it looked easy. It wasn’t. No marathon is easy. Those final seven or eight miles are an ordeal – a test of pain management. No matter what your speed, your preparation or your talent, one screamingly obvious fact never goes away: you would feel better if you stopped. But Emil faced an additional trial: he was alone.

By thirty kilometres he was twenty-six seconds in front of Jansson, and more than a minute ahead of Peters. Cox had dropped out by now, collapsing at around twenty-five kilometres and having to be taken to hospital. But Emil had no way of knowing this, or of knowing what other threats – Gorno, Cabrera, Choi – might be gaining in strength and speed. An experienced marathon runner might have felt confident enough to coast. Emil had no experience, but he did know that at the previous Olympics the eventual winner, Cabrera, had not taken the lead until he entered the stadium for the final lap. He dared not do anything but run as fast as he could, fighting the urge to take it easy, telling himself that each step taken meant one step less to go; and perhaps also reminding himself that, as Tomáš Baťa had taught, ‘There are 86,400 seconds in a day’ – from which it must follow that there are 8,700 seconds in a 2:25 marathon and, no less certainly, that running the final ten kilometres of a marathon at that pace would take 2,062 seconds.

Just over 2,000 seconds: that was all that stood between him and sporting immortality.

In fact, for all his efforts, he was losing speed – lots of it. His ten-kilometre split times for the race were 32:12, 32:15, 34:15 and 36:38. He admitted later that he had felt ‘terribly tired’ from around thirty kilometres. ‘The finish line was a long way off . I was alone, and my strength had gone.’ But his spirit hadn’t – not quite.

As he passed back through Pakinkylä at thirty-five kilometres, Emil was still only sixty-five seconds ahead – a significant lead, but not unassailable. There were still nearly five miles to go. This was where he needed to find his unbreakable core of champion’s stubbornness. If you look at his face in the brief, surviving footage of this stage of the race, you see a man who is no longer enjoying himself. There is something trance-like about him. His eyes are glazed; his face has settled into a fixed, almost peaceful mask, like a man close to death. He has rolled up his vest, bikini-like, to expose his dehydrated body to the breeze. His hands claw the air feebly. If he were wrestling an octopus, the octopus would win. ‘If you want to enjoy something,’ he said later, ‘run 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.’ These are the words of a man who knows what it really costs to keep going for 26.2 miles.

But the price was worth paying. The fast early pace had taken even more out of Emil’s rivals than out of him. Peters had dropped out at thirty-two kilometres, slumping to the pavement in an agony of cramp and heat exhaustion. As for Jansson, he was struggling desperately to keep in touch. Gorno was gaining on him, while Emil, without realising it, was now increasing his lead.

By forty kilometres Emil led by more than two minutes. The tower of the Olympic stadium was visible by now, with the Olympic flame blazing from it. The roadside support was growing denser and louder. He must have known that victory was within his grasp, yet the pain never stopped. The bounce had been hammered out of his calves and thighs: the next day, he had to hobble downstairs backwards, and it would be a week before he could walk normally. ‘My legs were hurting up to my neck,’ he said later. Yet still he kept pounding on, fixing his eyes on the flame, refusing to yield.

Not far from the stadium, he heard a ‘Bravo, Emil!’ among the Finnish cries of ‘Hyvä, Satu Peka!’, and was boosted by the sight of several of the athletes who had been battling with him for medals earlier in the week – Mimoun, Reiff , Pirie – cheering him on from the roadside.

The final uphill slope before the stadium seemed, as such stretches do, to go on for ever. Somehow he reached the top. He was in the stadium tunnel. He could see the track. He later claimed that, even now, he was afraid that he might collapse before the line, but he cannot seriously have doubted that the ‘impossible’ third gold was now his.

A trumpet fanfare greeted his entry. Nearly 70,000 people rose to their feet and erupted into ecstatic applause. According to the official report of the Games’ organising committee, he arrived at the stadium ‘in extremely good condition’, with ‘no sign now of that look of agony to which the public had become used in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres’. According to Emil, this was the first moment in the race when he felt happy.

The final 300m could hardly have been more different from that dramatic last half-minute of his battle with Mimoun, Schade and Chataway three days earlier. Yet they were equally unforgettable. The acclamation was deafening: ‘Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek!’ – a pulsating, spine-tingling thunderclap of celebration and goodwill. The Czechoslovak radio commentator struggled to make himself heard as he proclaimed: ‘We declare to the republic, at these, the fifteenth Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Staff Captain Emil Zátopek is approaching the finishing line in first place . . .’

The applause prompted Emil to think about a final sprint on the home straight, to please the crowd, ‘but my legs would not listen.’ Instead, ‘I tried to balance my steps and started to smile, so that no one would see how tired I was.’ At last, his wet chest touched the longed-for tape. The attempted smile finally became visible, weak but radiant, the smile of a man who knows, blissfully, that he has just taken the last step of a 26.2-mile race; and that, as a bonus, his wildest dream has just come true.

He limped off the track. As soon as he could, he sat. He took off his shoes. His feet were bleeding. Someone offered him a blanket. He refused, but asked for a fresh vest instead. He ate an apple. Then he looked for Dana, and jogged happily over for the most famous kiss in Olympic history.

Gradually, over the next thirty-six minutes, the other fifty-two finishers struggled over the line. Emil greeted several, offering Gorno, who had overtaken Jansson towards the end, an orange and a consolatory hug. To Jansson he gave a blanket. It was striking how wrecked the runners-up looked – a reminder that, simply in physical terms, this had been no ordinary race. It was the first time that every finisher in an Olympic marathon had broken the three-hour barrier. The first fifteen finishers had run personal bests; the first nine had broken the old Olympic record; the first twenty had run fast enough to have won gold at the previous Games. Cabrera, who finished sixth, was more than eight minutes faster than he had been when winning gold in London in 1948. Emil, the novice in the field, had spurred everyone else to surpass themselves. That was one of the things his fellow athletes loved him for.

You know the rest. There was the chairing by the Jamaican relay team, the lap of honour, the third medal ceremony in the space of eight days, broadcast to well over a hundred nations on radio and, in a few cases, television. The young man who just eleven years earlier had feigned injury to avoid running less than a mile through the streets of Zlín had, in the words of the New York Times, forced ‘the once-peerless Paavo Nurmi . . . to yield his pedestal as the greatest distance runner in history’. In the space of eight days he had done thirty-eight and a half miles of racing, in 3 hours 20 minutes 52.8 seconds (less time than it takes many good recreational runners to do just a marathon), at an average speed of 11.5mph; and, in the process, he had rewritten sporting history. All over the world, people who a month before had never heard of Czechoslovakia listened to its anthem with a growing sense of familiarity, and chattered excitedly about ‘Zátopek’. This latest triumph meant that only twenty of the sixty-nine nations competing at Helsinki had won more gold medals than Emil and Dana; if you limited the medals table to athletics, they had come second, behind the United States but ahead of all the other great powers of East and West.

In Czechoslovakia itself, Emil’s parents were among the millions who listened to his achievements live (although the much reproduced photograph of them stooped anxiously by the wireless in Kopřivnice was taken some time before the Games). Word even reached the men-to-be-eliminated in the concentration camps in Jáchymov. Ladislav Kořán, Emil’s old training partner, was given the news as an example of what a ‘decent socialist’ could achieve. Jan Haluza, Emil’s old trainer, was told by a non-political prisoner – a common criminal – who came swaggering across the yard shouting: ‘Emil Zátopek won three gold medals! Emil Zátopek won three gold medals!’ Seeing Haluza, he upbraided him for appearing insufficiently delighted. Haluza told him: ‘If you knew the relationship between me and him, you would not talk to me like that.’ He rejoiced at his protégé’s triumph; yet the joy was inseparable from sharp grief at being prevented from sharing it with him.

But the moment was a bittersweet one for Emil, too. As he embarked on his final slow lap of honour, and the cries of ‘Farewell, Fairy-tale Pete’ echoed around him, the sheer perfection of the moment made him feel suddenly sad. ‘I was sorry that, already, it belonged to the past – like when a man is reading a book and turns the last page. It has happened, and now it cannot happen again.’

Strictly speaking, he was right. But if he imagined that this marked the end – or even the high point – of the drama of his life, he could not have been more mistaken.


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