The Locomotive – Emil Zatopek

August 18, 2017

Emil Zatopek was known to be one of the greatest runners of the 20th century. Emil became recognized by all and famous when he won the 5000m, 10000m and the marathon at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. He was known all over the world as “The Locomotive” or the “Bouncing Czech”.

He dominated the long distance races from 1948 to 1954 when he won a total of 38 consecutive 10000m races including 11 races in 1949 alone. Zatopek also set 18 world records in all covering distances between 5000m to 30000m and won four Olympic gold medals and one silver medal.

He was the first person to run the distance of 10000m in under 29 minutes and also the first person to run the 20000m race in less than an hour. Let’s take a look at the early life of this great athlete.

Emil Zatopek was born in Czechoslovakia on September 19, 1922. He was the sixth child in a not well to do modest family. He began to work at the Bata shoe factory when he was just 15 years of age. In 1940 when the Bata Shoe Company sponsored the 1500m race, he was pursued to run the race by the company.

At that time, Emil Zatopek had never trained a day in his life. There were 100 participants in the race and he came in second during his first race. This stunning result motivated him to take a serious interest in the sport and then later to take it up as a career.

After 4 years, in 1944 he broke the Czech records for 2000, 3000 and 5000m. he was then selected to represent his country for the 1946 European Championships. He finished on the fifth place in the 5000m race, breaking his own Czech record by covering the distance in 14.25.8.

Zatopek made his Olympic debut in the 1948 Olympiad in London. He was just 26 years old at that time. He won the 10000m race and stood second in the 5000m race. At the same time he was attracted to a fellow team member by the name of Dana Ingrova. They married shortly after the London Olympics on 19th of September, 1960. Both also shared the same birthday and so decided to get married on that day.

Marriage worked well for Zatopek as he achieved the impossible in the 1952 Olympics held in Helsinki. He won the 5000m, the 10000m and the cross country marathon within a space of 8 days. His doctor had advised him not to compete in the Games as he was suffering from a gland infection but it was his grit and determination that made him participate in the Games and made him achieve this spectacular feat.

In 1955, Emil Zatopek set two world records again for 15 miles and 25,000 meters. In 1956 he retired from the competition after finishing in sixth place in the marathon at the Melbourne Olympics. He had to undergo a hernia operation just 6 weeks before the race and still he did well. Emil Zatopek was recognized all over the world for revolutionizing running and training.

He developed intense training workouts for runners that are still followed to this day. Emil was honoured with one of his nation’s highest awards by the name of “White Lion”. This award was presented to him by the then Czech President Vaclav Havel.

Emil Zatopek was known worldwide for his distinctive running style. His posture and the expressions on his face while running the races were noted by many different people. He also became an influential figure in the Communist Party when he joined. He was removed from all political positions after he later favoured the democratic wing and he was forced to work in a uranium mine as punishment. His wife Dana supported him throughout his entire career. She herself was a javelin thrower in the 1952 Olympics.

Emil Zatopek passed away on November 22, 2000 when he was 78 years old. He was suffering from pneumonia when he was admitted to Prague’s military hospital. Thousands of people attended the last rites and his funeral and the news of his death touched the hearts of millions of people worldwide. They were reduced to tears when they saw and heard that their hero was no more. Emil Zatopek is recognized worldwide today for his remarkable feats in the running category.

Career Highlights

  • 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games – Gold (3)
  • 1948 London Olympic Games – Gold, Silver
  • 1950 European Athletics Championships – Gold (2)


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