The Greatest Long Distance Runner Ever

Until date, no runner has been able to rival his feat. Czechoslovak Emil Zatopek, 1952 Olympics Triple Laureate visits Delhi in 1954, and shares the secrets of his success. Kishan S Rana reminisces about the prodigious athlete, via exclusive photographs.

The Greatest Long Distance Runner Ever Emil Zatopek running on the track at Delhi University. Photograph copyright © Kishan S Rana

The Helsinki Olympics of 1952 produced a sensation rare in athletics. A reputed distance runner from what was then Czechoslovakia, Emil Zatopek won the 5,000 and the 10,000 meters races, which were his specialities. Perhaps driven by exuberance, he then entered the Marathon for the first time ever (run over 26 miles, 485 yards, equal to 42,945 metres). He then won his third gold medal, producing an athletics triple of a kind that may never be seen again. He won the sobriquet: ‘The Czech Express’.

Why is that? These races are so different that nobody today runs all three. Several have achieved the 5000 and 10,000 double, but no marathoner runs those distances.

The Greatest Long Distance Runner Ever In 1954 Emil Zatopek visited New Delhi, here he is surrounded by fans and journalists. Photograph copyright © Kishan S Rana

In 1954, the communist government sent Zatopek on an extended Asian tour, to showcase the success of their regime. In India he travelled to Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi, and I photographed him training Indian distance runners at Delhi University; he was accompanied by his wife Dana, the 1952 Olympic champion in the javelin throw. I cherish two of my portrait photographs that Zatopek and Dana signed for me.

The Greatest Long Distance Runner Ever Emil Zatopek talking to journalists. Photograph copyright © Kishan S Rana

He spoke little, and showed humility. When an Indian champion, Hazara Singh touched his feet and sprinkled dust from them over his head, Zatopek gifted to him his running shoes. And when an Indian journalist asked him for the secret of his success, he responded: “Simple. I just run, and run, and run.”

The Greatest Long Distance Runner Ever Olympic Javelin champion Dana Zatopek, wife of Emil Zatopek, 1954. Photograph copyright © Kishan S Rana

He joined the Czechoslovak Communist Party and benefited from that and his world fame, but when he sided with democratic forces during the Prague Spring movement of 1968, he was expelled from the Party and sent to virtual exile, allowed to return to Prague only after 1977. After the fall of communist regimes in East Europe, he was rehabilitated in 1990, and led a quiet life. He died in 2000, and his funeral was held at the Prague National Theatre.

(All photographs copyright © Kishan S Rana)

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Priya Kumari Rana

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