The running revolutionary

Czech athlete Emil Zátopek's extraordinary feats on the running track made him a global superstar. But, as Richard Askwith reveals, Zátopek's political activism set him at loggerheads with his nation's communist authorities

Emil Zátopek. (Photo by Universal/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The crowds at Helsinki’s new airport were overwhelming. On 10 July 1952 – nine days before the opening of the XV Olympic Games – some 10,000 people had turned out to welcome the world’s most famous athlete to Finland. But there was a problem: when the Czechoslovak team disembarked their plane, Captain Emil Zátopek was not among them.

Zátopek, a 29-year-old army officer, was a runner of mesmerising ability and international celebrity. He had burst on to the world stage at the London Olympics four years earlier with a crushing victory at 10,000 metres and a dramatic half-stride defeat at 5,000 metres; since then, he had become a figure of irresistible dominance. He had never been defeated over 10,000 metres and was all but unbeatable over 5,000.

His nickname – the Czech Locomotive – reflected his seemingly inhuman indifference to pain. The rigour of his training sessions was legendary; in the words of one expert, he “completely upset all previous notions of the limits of human endurance”. Helsinki was his appointment with destiny: a chance to achieve the elusive distance running double of golds at 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres, and to establish himself beyond doubt as the greatest runner of his generation.

Yet now, when his hour had come, he hadn’t turned up.

Journalists were told that Zátopek had tonsillitis. In fact he was in Prague, engaged in a game of high-stakes ‘chicken’ with the communist authorities that could easily have resulted in him being sent to a labour camp. A teammate, Stanislav Jungwirth, had been dropped at the last minute for political reasons: his father had been caught distributing subversive literature. Zátopek was outraged. If his friend did not fly to Helsinki, he announced, nor would he.

The stand-off continued for at least a day, possibly longer. The plane flew without both athletes. Eventually, Zátopek was escorted to the Ministry of Defence where, to his surprise, he was not arrested but presented with his travel papers and a reinstated Jungwirth. The pair flew to Helsinki – and by the end of the month Zátopek had achieved sporting immortality.

There is no other word for it. It wasn’t just his unprecedented, never-to-be-repeated haul of all three distance running golds (he threw in the marathon, which he had never run before, as a kind of afterthought). It was the charm with which he won them. The Helsinki Games were the most politicised in Olympic history, with the Soviet Union insisting on a separate athletes’ village for communist bloc nations. Zátopek made a nonsense of such divisions. He was extravagantly courteous to westerners, exchanging gifts, sharing training secrets, joking with journalists in their own languages. As one Australian coach (to whom Zátopek actually gave up his bed when he outstayed his welcome in the communist village) observed, such good will made it “seem preposterous that we should ever be required to hate each other”.

When Zátopek entered the Olympic stadium for the last time, for the final lap of the marathon, it seemed that the whole world had been won over by his charisma. Nearly 70,000 spectators chanted his name in rhythmic, spine-tingling unison: “Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek!” “At that moment,” recalled one of them, Juan Antonio Samaranch (a future president of the International Olympic Committee), “I understood what the Olympic spirit means.”

Clashes with communists

For Czechoslovakia’s communist regime, Zátopek’s popularity was harder to deal with. Yes, he had put their nation on the map – but at what cost? “Comrade Zátopek runs well,” said the political officer at the team assembly following his second Helsinki gold. “If he could improve his behaviour, he could be a good example to our youth.” After news reached Prague of his third, a proposal for “the exemplary punishment of Captain Zátopek” was torn up by the chief of staff at the Ministry of Defence.

It wasn’t his first clash with the party. A communist by conviction, with a life-long habit of sharing his possessions with others, he was individualist by temperament. In 1948, at the London Olympics, he had been ordered to miss the opening ceremony, but defied that command. He had also given his secret-service minders the slip to pay an illicit dawn visit to the girls’ school where the female Czechoslovak athletes, including his future wife, javelin thrower Dana Ingrová, were staying. (He wanted to show Dana his latest medal. In their excitement, they dropped it in the swimming pool.) After the Games, he was denied permission to marry Dana, whose family was associated with social democracy. He threatened to leave the army, and the ban was rescinded.

More worrying was his habit of thinking for himself on ideological matters. His military records are full of scandalised notes about his “peculiar” or “incorrect” views. Once, he refused point-blank to inform on a fellow officer who was suspected of ideological unsoundness. In the fervid atmosphere of the early years of Czechoslovak communism – when failure to inform the authorities of any kind of political crime was punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment – such defiance was close to suicidal. Other famous athletes, including Zátopek’s former trainer, Jan Haluza, had already been sent to concentration camps for political offences; so, later, were most of the national ice hockey team, arrested en masse on suspicion of disloyalty as they prepared to fly to London in 1950 to defend their world title.

Zátopek survived by picking and choosing his fights. He did not prevent his name from being used as part of the virulent propaganda campaign that accompanied the show trial and execution of the social democratic politician Milada Horáková in 1950. Nor did he refuse to report back to the StB (the Czech state security service) on his overseas visits, as was required of every athlete. Yet he pushed the boundaries when he dared. A gifted self-taught linguist, he knew that the StB’s “sharp eyes” did not share his fluency. Team-mates attest that he often mistranslated the conversations he was supposed to report, disguising the warmth of his friendships with western rivals.

After Helsinki, Zátopek was all but untouchable, as long as he did two things. He had to keep winning – if he lost, he said, he feared he would be sent to prison. And he had to allow the regime to exploit his image.

With millions of Czechoslovak citizens still perplexingly unenthusiastic about communism, the Zátopek story offered a priceless opportunity to boost national morale. Dana had won a gold of her own at Helsinki on the same day as Emil’s second, which meant that Czechoslovakia (that is, the Zátopek household) had won more track-and-field gold medals at the Games than any other nation apart from the United States. What regime could resist trying to claim a share of the glory?

Not only had Zátopek put Czechoslovakia on the map, he was also a class hero. Born in poverty, he had achieved success through the simple formula of spectacularly hard work. It would have been difficult to think of a more improving message to put to the Czechoslovak people, and Zátopek was conscripted to spread it. No public event – from May Day parades to the mass participation gymnastic displays known as Spartakiads – was considered complete without him.

The fastest figurehead

Notwithstanding his training regime and his military duties, Zátopek was expected to address factories, schools and forums, week in, week out, reliving his triumphs and sharing the morals he drew from them. One fellow athlete spoke of him being “chased from forum to forum like a bloated goat”. Yet despite his private grumbles (for which he was reprimanded at least once) he was good at it. He had a gift for being glamorous and ordinary at the same time – rather like David Beckham today. People responded delightedly to his cheerful, unassuming personality.

Meanwhile, the Party’s propagandists set to work. Official news channels recorded the emergence of a supposedly spontaneous “Zátopkovite” movement, modelled on the Soviet Stakhanovite movement, in which workers increased their output through sheer enthusiasm for Zátopek’s achievements. As one writer put it: “The workers followed his example and set a higher pace for their work, in order to hasten the building of socialism in their country.” In fact, the workers don’t seem to have been given much choice in the matter.

The novelist František Kožík was commissioned to write a hagiography – ‘biography’ is too neutral a word for a life story told through a sometimes laughably crude ideological filter. Propaganda newsreels chronicling Zátopek’s triumphs became familiar to every Czechoslovak cinema-goer, and provided raw material for an hour-long film, Jeden ze štafety (‘One of the Relay’), stills from which also featured in lavishly illustrated editions of Kožík’s work that were sold, with some success, in the west. The French communist newspaper L’Humanité was inspired to hail Zátopek as “the new man: Socialist Man”. J Armour Milne, the Prague-based athletics correspondent of the Morning Star, was equally enthusiastic: “As a good soldier, he must obey. As a true champion, he must surpass himself. And, behind him, the youth of the nation follows…”

As his athletic career drew to a close in the late 1950s, Zátopek found himself used as a kind of sporting ambassador. His semi-official travels took him to India, Brazil, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Indonesia, Egypt and other destinations; his duties ranged from exhibition races and coaching to meeting, greeting and speech-making. Some people joked that Zátopek’s hosts mixed him up with Czech president Antonín Zápotocký.

It is not inconceivable that this was true.

But the travels added to Zátopek’s growing political disillusionment, allowing him, as he put it, to “see the progress in the world – and return home to a country where time has stopped”. Others shared his frustration. Growing pressure for reform culminated in the appointment, in January 1968, of a new first secretary of the Communist party, Alexander Dubcˇek, whose programme of “socialism with a human face” blossomed into what became known as the Prague Spring. Zátopek was an enthusiastic supporter. That June, he signed The Two Thousand Words – a manifesto urging the reformers not to lose their nerve in the face of Soviet intimidation.

Communism by force

On 20 August, the Soviets responded. Half a million Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia, determined to restore hardline communism by force. Zátopek was at the forefront of the protests, addressing crowds in Wenceslas Square, haranguing the occupiers in their own languages, and calling for the Soviet Union to be banned from the impending Olympic Games in Mexico.

In the months that followed, the reform movement was crushed: not savagely, but by steady, relentless pressure. Zátopek was among 300,000 people who lost their jobs. Expelled from the army and the Communist party, he was reduced to working as an itinerant labourer, living in a caravan far from his home and his beloved wife. His semi-official role as national hero evaporated.

The disgrace hurt. He took refuge in the bottle. Eventually, in July 1971, he was manipulated into giving an interview to the Party’s Rudé pravo newspaper in which he appeared to renounce everything he had fought for in 1968. By then he had also backed down in a messy libel action against the hardline communist minister Vilém Nový, and from that point onwards he seemed to give up the struggle. He gave evidence against the stubbornly reformist chess grandmaster Ludêk Pachman in his trial in 1972, while in 1977 he was wheeled out to denounce the dissident Charter ’77 on television. Once, he had preached that “one’s willpower increases with every task fulfilled”. Now he was discovering the dispiriting opposite: that each surrender makes it easier to give in the next time.

By then he was back in Prague, having been given a desk job in the documentation centre of the CSTV, the Czechoslovak sports federation, in 1974. As a political figurehead he was a spent force, despised as a turncoat by dissidents as well as by the hardline communists who felt that he had betrayed them in 1968. It was a harsh fate for a man described by one American rival as “perhaps the most humble, friendly and popular athlete in modern times”. It also meant that, by the time he was officially rehabilitated in 1990, Zátopek had been widely forgotten.

He lived out the remaining decade of his life in obscurity, loved by his friends and worshipped from afar by athletics enthusiasts of a certain age. He died of a stroke on 22 November 2000.

Only now, 16 years after his death, is Zátopek’s homeland beginning to re-embrace its most famous son. Every Czech athlete will wear a Zátopek symbol on their vest at the Rio Olympics – which will also see the launch of a new film about his life, backed by the Czech Olympic Committee. It is an overdue tribute to a man whose story – according to a later Czech-born sporting hero, Martina Navratilova – “reminds us of the pain and the glory behind every victory, and the power of sport to bring people together and make history”.

Richard Askwith is associate editor of The Independent. His latest book, Today We Die a Little: The Rise and Fall of Emil Zátopek, Olympic Legend was published by Yellow Jersey in April.

Power games

Other Olympians who made waves in the sphere of politics

Sir Christopher Chataway

Zátopek’s rival over 5,000 metres had more natural speed and grace than Zátopek but lacked his dedication. The Briton led briefly in the last lap of the 5,000m final in Helsinki in 1952 but fell after Zátopek had overtaken him. Chataway later became a Conservative MP, notable for his opposition to apartheid and sympathy for refugees, and served as a minister under Edward Heath in the early 1970s. Zátopek was his guest in the House of Commons during a visit to London in 1967. Chataway gave up politics in 1974 and devoted his energies into the charity ActionAid and running the Civil Aviation Authority.

Věra Čáslavská

Like Zátopek, Čáslavská, a gymnast, signed the Two Thousand Words manifesto in 1968. Then, a few weeks after the invasion that crushed the Prague Spring, she won four golds (one tied) and two silvers in the Mexico City Olympics. On the two occasions when she was forced to share the podium with a Soviet competitor she indicated her patriotic displeasure by looking downwards and away when the Soviet anthem was played. On her return home, she was effectively forced out of sport. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, she became an official adviser to President Václav Havel.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos

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Smith and Carlos won gold and bronze respectively in the 200 metres in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City – but their achievement was eclipsed by the gesture they made on the medal podium. As the US anthem played, the African-Americans silently raised their black-gloved fists in a ‘black power’ salute. The protest seems innocuous today; at the time it sent shockwaves around the world. Smith and Carlos received death threats, were suspended from the US team and were barred from the athletes’ village. Back home, however, the civil rights movement was reinvigorated.