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An Interview With Emil Zatopek, The Famous Long-distance Runner

  • Frank Csongos

This is the first article in a series on prominent Eastern Olympic athletes. The series will also deal with major Olympic developments

Prague, June 20 (RFE/RL Special Feature) - It was the communist sports system that created the legendary Emil Zatopek. But the same system sought to destroy him when the long-distance runner spoke out against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

And he still pays the price. He lives very modestly. He has health problems. But he has no regrets.

Zatopek is one of the great heroes of the modern Olympic Games. In the 1948 London Olympics, he won the gold for running the 10,000 meters and took the silver in the 5,000.

At Helsinki in 1952, he won three gold medals: in the 5,000-meter, 10,000-meter and marathon runs. An injury prevented him to earn more medals four years later.

Now 73 and finding it difficult to walk because of a virus infection, Zatopek discussed his life in a wide-ranging RFE-RL interview at his home in a Prague suburb. He shares his life with his wife of 48 years, Dana Zatopkova.

Dana is also an Olympic champion. She won the gold in javelin at Helsinki in 1952 and a silver at Rome in 1960.

They were both born on Sept. 19, 1922. "Emil is four hours older than me," she says with a smile.

"I didn't want to be a runner," Zatopek said at the interview. "I was working at a shoe factory during the war and they asked me to run in a competition. I said my knee was hurting. The doctor examined me. He said, 'You can run.' So I did and came in second. That's how it all started."

When the communists seized power in Czechoslovakia, Zatopek and other talented athletes were given privileges and resources available to only a few.

"Who could travel in a communist country?" Zatopek recalled. "Only a diplomat or a sportsman. Not normal people. It was a great advantage, but also a disadvantage. Because these people could see the progress in the world. And return home, to a country where time was stopped."

Zatopek set 18 world records in long-distance running during a riveting career in the late 1940s and 50s. He was given the rank of colonel in the army. He was the darling of the system.

"The system used sports for propaganda," Zatopek said. "We had everything -- time for training, clothes for training, good food for training. Everything. Only one problem: results."

When Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Zatopek made his opposition public. He said the Soviets should not be permitted to participate in the 1968 Olympics because such an act of force was against the Olympic spirit.

A week later, he was summoned to the Defense Ministry and was kicked out of the army. "I was sentenced to manual labor in a uranium mine."

Zatopek says he could endure the experience because "for a sportsman it (hard work) is not bad." Besides, he says, it paid better than office work. He worked in the mine for a few months.

He was rehabilitated only after the 1989 collapse of communism.

Zatopek says amateur sport is finished now -- "everything depends on sponsorship." But he says this system is producing better athletes.

"Atlanta (this year) will be the greatest Olympic Game ever organized," he says. But Zatopek says he has no plans to attend it. "We don't know the new champions. We have a nice television set."

Zatopek says he doubts whether he would be a world record holder today because the most talented young long-distance runners now come from the underdeveloped world.

"Our kids are driven to school or ride the bus," he says. "They watch television. Kids from Africa walk and run."

Zatopek says he has no regrets in the world of sports.

"I wanted to prove I could win," he says. "I am satisfied. I am happy."