Re-pounding the Past: Flashback to great road races – Part Four (written for UK Athletics 06/08).
Each month, Run Britain will delve into either the domestic or international road running archives and review a classic road race. This month, NICOLA BAMFORD winds back the clock to the 1952 Summer Olympics, held in Helsinki...
Affectionately known as the “Czech locomotive”, 30 year-old Emil Zatopek broke new ground in the 1952 Olympic Games, by taking an unprecedented three gold medals over the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon distances. Zatopek’s unique triple was wildly applauded by the distance-mad Finns and firmly established himself as arguably the greatest distance runner of all-time.
Despite only entering international athletics competition at the previous Games in 1948 (at which he took 10,000m gold and 5,000m silver) Zatopek, who was also known for his brutally-tough training methods, broke the existing Olympic record in each of the three events in Helsinki and astonishingly, his 2:23.03 26.2-mile clocking came in his marathon debut.
Having taken the shorter event in 14:06.6 and retaining his 25-lap title with 29:17 – both from Frenchman; Alain Mimoun, Zatopek decided to contest the marathon at the last minute. This decision was additionally buoyed by his wife; Dana’s gold medal-winning javelin display.
Jim Peters of Great Britain; the world record-holder with a time of 2:20:42, was expected to win, especially what with Zatopek’s inexperience and tiredness coming into the equation. However, the determined Czech athlete decided it would be simplest to stay close to Peters throughout; who started with a spirited front-running tactic, intent on intimidating his great rival.
Doggedly keeping Peters in his sight, Zatopek – at the half-way mark – asked Peters, in English, if the pace was too fast. Reports differ on Peters' answer; some say that he joked that in fact it was too slow, and others say he said it was just right. Zatopek asked again, and Peters, apparently annoyed and not wanting to talk, moved to the other side of the road. Zatopek later said, "It is a sign of disharmony, of losing too much energy when someone gets nervous like that. I said to myself, [the pace] must not be right."
He was correct. Peters soon tired and began to slow. Zatopek and Swedish runner; Gustaf Jansson continued on at a fast pace. British runner; Stan Cox collapsed at the halfway point and was taken away in an ambulance.
At the 20-mile mark, Peters also dropped out and was taken back to the stadium in an ambulance so he could watch the finish. In the last few miles, Zatopek pulled ahead of Jansson, and entered the stadium and his final lap - to the roar of a huge crowd chanting his name. Not only had he won an amazing triple victory - the only man ever to pull off such a feat - but he had also set a new Olympic Marathon record in his first try at the 26.2 mile distance. He had beaten the record by more than six minutes; a truly amazing feat.
By the time the second runner crossed the finish-line (Argentina’s Reinaldo Gorno in 2:25.35; with Jansson in third, with 2:26.07), Zatopek had already greeted his wife, changed his clothes, and was halfway through eating an apple. Despite this gap, Zatopek had set such a fast pace that all six top finishers beat the previous Olympic record. After that day, he was so exhausted that he could hardly walk for a week.