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A Czech locomotive steamed to victory in Helsinki without a railway line in sight!

July 20th, 1952, was the second day of the 15th Olympic Games, held in the Finnish capital. To the delight of the crowds, it saw Czechoslovakian athlete Emil Zatopek lop more than 40 seconds off the 10,000 metres Olympic record which he had set four years previously in London.

Nicknamed the "Czech Locomotive", the 30-year-old led from the start, unleashing a burst of speed early in the race to surge ahead of the other runners, with only Frenchman Alain Mimoun able to stay close to him. By the final lap even Mimoun was half-a-lap behind as Zatopek sped to the finish line, crossing it in 29 minutes 17 seconds.

Zatopek was instantly recognisable on the track for his distinctive running style, which was at odds with everything considered efficient at the time. His head would roll, his arms flailed, his torso swung from side to side, his face was apparently tortured with pain. He also wheezed and panted audibly, earning him the 'locomotive' tag. When asked about his unattractive style and pained facial expressions, he replied matter of factly: "It isn't gymnastics or figure skating you know".

Stylish or not, it would be a truly memorable Olympics for the Czech distance runner, who went on the win gold in an edge-of-the seat 5,000 metres. In a ferocious last lap he moved from fourth place to first around the final turn, overtaking Britain's Chris Chattaway just before the line.

As if that wasn't enough, Zatopek decided at the last minute to compete in the marathon, despite never having run one in his life. With no experience to guide him, he adopted a simple strategy – to run alongside British world record holder Jim Peters. After a punishing first 10 miles, in which Peters knew he had overstretched himself in a bid to shake off the Czech, Zatopek turned to him and casually asked how he thought the race was going so far?

An astonished Peters tried to unsettle the Czech by telling him the pace was "too slow". Taking him at his word, Zatopek simply accelerated, leaving Peters floundering in his wake. While Peters failed to finish, Zatopek won the race in a new Olympic record time as the ecstatic crowd chanted his name over and over.

Never before had an athlete won the 10,000 metres, 5,000 metres and the marathon at a single Olympic games, and it is a feat that has never been repeated since.

When asked about his success he replied that he ran faster because he trained harder. Known for his brutally tough training regime, Zatopek ran in all weathers, including extreme snow and ice, often wearing heavy work boots rather than running shoes. He was the instigator of many proven training methods which endure to this day, including interval training and hypoventilation training.

Although he would never quite recapture the glory of the 1952 Olympics, Emil Zatopek went on to win many more races and set many more records in a career that would see his name etched in the pantheon of all-time distance running greats.

 

Zatopek died in 2000 after suffering complications resulting from a stroke, and is still revered in his home country and the world of distance running. In 2013 the editors at Running World Magazine selected him as the "Greatest Runner of All Time".

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