Emil Zapotek may very well be the greatest runner of all time.
Born in Koprivnice, Czechoslovakia on September 19, 1922 he was the sixth child in a simple family. He began working in a Bata shoe factory at age 16 and four years later was entered by the factory sports coach into a company-sponsored 1,500 meter race even though he had never raced before. He finished second in a field of 100 and took an interest in running, joining the local athletic club and studying the training methods of the great Finnish Olympian Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn”. Four years later, Zatopek broke the Czech records for 2000, 3000 and 5000 meters. He joined the Czechoslovak Army at the end of World War II where he was provided more time and resources for training.
Mr. Zapotek was selected for the Czech national team for the 1946 European Championships and finished 5th in the 5,000 meters while breaking his own Czechoslovak record. He qualified for the 1948 Summer Olympics and took gold in the 10,000 meters in only the second time he had ever run that distance. He also captured silver in the 5,000 meter run. He broke the 10,000 meter world record twice in 1949 and went on to lower that mark three more times over the next four seasons. In 1951, he broke four world records in one meet and set 18 world records from 1949 to 1954 in distances from 5,000 to 30,000 meters, demonstrating talent and versatility never before seen in distance running.
The “Czech Locomotive” demonstrated his immense talent most brilliantly at the 1952 summer games in Helsinki. On July 20, he won the 10,000 meters while setting a new Olympic record. Forty eight hours later, he won the 5,000 meters while setting another Olympic record. He entered the final turn of that race in 4th place and passed all three runners ahead of him with a blistering final lap of 57.5. Five days later, he decided at the last minute to enter the marathon, a race he had never run and won a gold medal while setting yet another Olympic record and winning by two-and-a-half minutes.
The 5’8”, 145 pound athlete is considered the pioneer of interval and hypoventilation training, which are commonplace methods today. His wife, Dana Zatopkova, was also born on September 19, 1922 and the two married on that date in 1948. She won a gold medal in javelin one hour after her husband’s win in the 5,000 meters in Helsinki in 1952.
Mr. Zapotek attempted to defend his marathon gold medal in the 1956 Summer Olympics but suffered an injury during training and never fully rounded into shape, finishing sixth. He retired from competition in 1957.
Emil Zapotek earned four gold and one silver medal in Olympic competition and three gold, one bronze in European Athletics Championships. He was awarded the Order of the White Lion, the highest decoration of the Czech Republic, in 1998. Runner’s World named him the “Greatest Runner of All Time” in 2013.
On this date in 1952, the “Czech Locomotive” won the gold medal in the Olympic marathon race.