I said I wouldn’t choose events like Mark Spitz’s because you couldn’t see him win all 7 medals in one day; ditto Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens. But for Emil Zatopek I’ll make an exception.
On this day Zatopek, who had never run a marathon before, won the event, and completed a never to be seen again treble – the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon. The impossibility of this occurring again cannot be overestimated; most of today’s runners rarely even try the 5,000m, 10,000m double let alone the marathon. I seriously doubt a runner will ever even do the treble in his career.
Zatopek had won Gold in the 10,000m in London four years earlier, and Silver in the 5,000m (he should have won but ran a stupid race – he was 50m behind the leader with a lap to go and ended up losing by only 2 tenths of a second).
In Helsinki he was the World Record holder of the 10,000m and won the event in a canter – by 48 seconds (he lapped all but second and third). His time of 29:59.6 was an Olympic record.
His win in the 5,000m was more problematic. With one lap to go four runners were in contention: Mimoun of France, Shade of Germany, and Chataway of Great Britain. Down the back straight they all go past Zatopek – never a good sign – in fact with 250m to go he looks gone, not even a chance for third. But around the final bend he inconceivably kicks and starts to go around all three. Chataway, utterly spent, trips over the railing, and Zatopek comes into the straight in the lead and wins going away in 14:06.6, an Olympic record.
The final day of competition, then as now, featured the men’s marathon. Zatopek, due to his ignorance at running the event, decided to follow the world record holder and favourite, Jim Peters. According to Wallechinsky, Zatopek kept running next to Peters and asking him if the pace was too fast or too slow. Peters, who was pretty much done in decided to psyche out Zatopek and finally replied that it was too slow. Zatopek thought about it and then asked again if it was too slow. Peters, probably with his last breath, said “Yes”.
And so Zatopek increased the pace and left Peters floundering and soon foundering (he dropped out around the 20 mile mark). Zatopek, 1 - Reverse Psychology, 0.
But why did I choose this day to be the one I wish I was there? For the final lap in the stadium. Zatopek was all alone – he would win by 2 ½ minutes - and the Helsinki crowd knew all about distance running. The Olympic flame had been carried into the stadium by the great Paavo Nurmi, and all the other distance running flying Finns of the 20s and 30s had a hand in the Opening ceremony – Distance running was in the blood of the Finnish. They appreciated Zatopek's achievement in a way no other nation really could.
And so his final lap at the end of the marathon was done to a chorus of Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek! Za-to-pek! For a lover of distance running, this is as close to athletic heaven as you can get, and it is the moment I think I would trade all the others to have been able to see. He won in a time of 2hrs 23min 3sec. Another Olympic record. Yep, this is my favourite moment.