Zátopek completes incredible long-distance treble

The Helsinki crowd knew all about fine distance running. Indeed, Finland's greatest runners, Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kolehmainen, had combined to light the cauldron during the Opening Ceremony, so it was perhaps fitting that another distance runner should be the star of these Games.

Czechoslovakia's Emil Zátopek was, of course, already well known by the time Helsinki 1952 came around. He had won the 10,000m title four years earlier in London, as well as taking silver in the 5,000m. But in Finland he cemented his place as one of the all-time greats of long-distance running.

He opened his Helsinki campaign in the 10,000m, taking the lead from the start and then never relinquishing it. One by one, the main challengers fell off, unable to keep up with his relentless pace. Zátopek eventually finished 100m ahead of his closest rival, breaking the Olympic record in the process.

Apparently untroubled by tiredness, he then turned his attentions to the 5,000m, spending most of his heat talking to the other runners and allowing several to finish ahead of him, with his qualification assured. When it came to the final, though, all of Zátopek’s focus and steely determination came to the fore. The Czechoslovak led at the bell, but part way through the last lap he dropped back into fourth. He responded on the back bend, moving away from the kerb and powering into the lead. He crossed the line in first place, less than a second ahead of his closest rival to set another Olympic record. After two events Zátopek had claimed two golds and two records.

He had barely had time to savour his latest victory when the insatiable Czechoslovak announced his decision to enter the marathon. It seemed like mission impossible – he had never run the distance before and his exertions in the 10,000m and 5,000m would surely leave him too exhausted to put up a meaningful challenge. But he was adamant he could do it. His only concern was that he was not familiar with the tactical nuances of running a marathon. His solution was to follow behind the British world record holder Jim Peters, who started at a ferocious pace. At the halfway point, Zátopek asked Peters about the state of the race. “The pace is too slow,” joked a weary Peters. Zátopek took him at his word, and duly sprinted off!

With six miles to go, he was on his own at the front, and was now taking the time to chat to spectators and police officers as he ran. The marathon debutant took gold by a stunning margin and set yet another Olympic record, delighting the crowd and earning him a lap of honour on the shoulders of the Jamaican sprint team. The whole world, it seemed, had come to adore the exploits of this well-mannered, gregarious and happy-go-lucky runner. Famously, the chants of “Zá-to-Pek” that resounded around the Olympic stadium became something of a Helsinki 1952 anthem.


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