120 years, 120 stories (Part 47) : The Zátopek couple and their ‘golden’ affair at Helsinki


How rare would you find a feat when both the husband and the wife win an Olympic gold each on the same day? Yes, it happened and just inside a span of 10 minutes when the Czech pair of Emil Zátopek and Dana Ingrová-Zátopková claimed victories in their respective track and field events in the 1952 Helsinki Games. Still want another piece of bizarre? Well they share the same date of birth!

Emil and Dana were the lovebirds who knew each other since they turned professional athletes but it was only during the London Games of 1948 that their relationship matured. Born on 19th September 1922, the Zátopek couple married two months post the 1948 Olympics. Though Emil returned with a gold and a silver, Dana Ingrová followed empty-handed.

Before going into the story of today of how the spouses made the most of those ten minutes, let me throw a bit of light on Emil Zátopek and his atypical ways in the sports. He was a regular 5000 metres long distance runner, but just before the 1948 Olympics he decided to run 10000 metres for the first time and to his surprise, in build up to the event, he saw himself with a second and a half of the world record for the same. So he decided to run both the distances and eventually won the 10000 m gold twice at Olympics – one in London and the other in Helsinki four years hence – and both the times with relative ease.

Emil is also the inadvertent creditor of the “Zátopek Phenomenon” – which talks of “tapering” or cutting short the training schedule at some point to maximize productivity for a targeted event – because he believed the least in preserving the body for big races but was a greater believer of intense training – sometimes running for a cumulative distance of 40 km during the course of a day. But however owing to illness, the Czech had to spend a month at the hospital prior to the European Championships of 1950 and thus forewent his intensive training methods. Out of hospital just two days before the meet, he went on to win gold in both the 5000 and 10000 metres – thus indicating the importance of “cool-off” period before a big event.

Coming back to the Helsinki Games, after defending the 10000 metre crown, Emil turned his focus to the 5000 metre which he lost narrowly last time to Belgium’s Gaston Reiff who at the finishing lap could hear the footsteps and feel the breath of the silver medalist. And once again in a pulsating match-up, the Czechoslovakia long distance runner took one last decisive bend to whiz past the leading trio of Alain Mimoun of France, Herbert Schade of West Germany and Chris Chataway of Great Britain. The final lap was covered by the champion in just 57.5 seconds to propel him to the top of the podium from an outside position and hence bury the ghosts of one of London’s rainy and muddy days.

And to add to his delight, his wife Dana too won the javelin show with an Olympic record against her name. Dana who finished seventh last time was inspired by the dedication of her husband when she encountered him in his training sessions and hence decided to give up handball to put a single dimensional focus on javelin throw. Having said of her admiration for her husband, such was the teasing nature of their relationship that at one such special moment she was a bit more sarcastic when, at the press conference shortly after their respective victories, her husband Emil tried to emphasize how his win inspired her. And here goes her sharp-edged reply perhaps even better than her Olympic winning hurl –“Really? Okay, go inspire some other girl and see if she throws a javelin fifty metres!”

Perhaps Emil had the last laugh in this sweet war when many years down the line, the couple was running short of a broom for their ground floor. So he took the same Olympic winning javelin of Dana’s and turned it into the handle of a new broomstick. Though the lady of the property was rightly offended at her husband’s novelty (read cruelty), she later used the same for over half a century at her kitchen. And Emil finally was successful in removing the spears from her javelin!

Coming back to the Helsinki Games, with two golds, the Olympics was still not over for the Czech Locomotive who would go on to win the rarest triple in marathon – beating Britain’s world-record holder Jim Peters who had turned to marathon after Emil dished him out a ignominious defeat at the last Games thus preparing the latter’s graveyard at the 10000 metres. This time too, Emil had a comfortable win while Peters had to bow out of the race due to cramps. With this, Mr. Zátopek became the first man (and the only till date) to win triple crowns in long distance running at the same Olympics.

However the Zátopeks who had served high posts ran out of favours after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. As the Prague Spring was subdued, Emil was stripped of his military honours and sent to do manual work at sanitation department and uranium mining sites as punishment for being vocal about westernization and democracy in the Communist-ruled State. Despite hardships they faced, the Zátopeks declined all offers of emigration that came their way.

Emil who could speak six different languages was loved over the world for his humility. A classical example of this was his inviting and gifting the famous long distance sprinter, Ron Clarke, his 10000 metre Olympic gold medal in a surprise wrapper as a token of his admiration for the Australian after he fared poorly at the high-altitude Mexico Olympics. His funeral at Prague in 2000 was attended by many leading athletes from around the globe – which is a hallmark of the personality who won the United Nation’s Pierre de Coubertin Prize for promoting Fair Play.

Wife Zátopková, an Olympic Order awardee in 1988, kept some of her husband’s ashes in a blue jar at her apartment that she shifted to from the house they built together – the latter being portrayed by Emil’s British rival Gordon Pirie as “the merriest and gayest home I’ve been in”. And in words of Ron Clarke, “there is not, and never was, a greater man” than the man of that house.

Photo by Eugenio Hansen, OFS