Emil Zátopek of Czechoslovakia is the only person in Olympic history to win the 5000 meters, the 10,000 meters and the marathon at the same Olympics. He achieved this amazing feat at the 1952 Games in Helsinki, where the Finns, who appreciated long-distance running, hailed him as a great hero. Back in Czechoslovakia, he became a living legend. At the 1952 Olympics, his wife, Dana, earned a gold medal in the javelin throw.
In 2016, director David Ondříček made a documentary about Emil Zátopek that allowed him to interview many athletes and others who knew Zátopek. He also got to know Dana, who, unfortunately, died before the dramatic version of their lives could be released.
Zátopek the film is framed by a true event in which Australian runner Ron Clarke, at a crisis point in his career, visits Emil Zátopek in Prague. Although Clarke was the world record holder at 10,000 meters, he had never won an Olympic gold medal. The lessons the eccentric Czech champion gives Clarke have less to do about running than they do about living. Throughout the film there are flashbacks to various points in Zátopek’s life as he rises from obscurity to international fame. This is, however, not simply a typical sports biopic about an athlete who overcomes hardship to succeed. Zátopek has difficulties in his marriage, and there are references to the attempts of the communist government to exploit his fame for their own propaganda.
Although the filmmakers made minor changes to the true story for dramatic effect, there are a couple events worth relating. It really is true that when Dana earned her gold medal, Emil tried to take partial credit for inspiring her. To which Dana replied, “What? Alright, go ahead and inspire some other girl and see if she throws a javelin 50 meters.”
At the end of the film, at the airport, before Clarke boards his flight, Zátopek hands him a small, wrapped package. Here is how Clarke described this real-life incident: “I thought I was smuggling some message to the outside world for him so did not dare open the parcel until the plane was well outside Czechoslovakian territory. When I opened it up, it was his 1952 Olympic 10,000 meters gold medal. I thought back to the words he said as he passed it across to me, which at the time I did not understand. ‘Because you deserved it.’ I do know no one cherishes any gift more than I do, my only Olympic gold medal and not because of what it is…but because of the man whose spirit it represents.”
I had the pleasure of moderating two question and answer sessions with Ondříček and producer Krystof Mucha, one of which also included Václav Neužil, who plays Emil Zátopek.
As difficult as it was to portray Zátopek at different ages, Neužil also had to keep in shape for five years due to delays caused by funding problems and then the Covid pandemic.
Martha Issová does an excellent job as Dana, although she too had her challenges considering that the director is her husband.
I cannot leave this review of Zátopek without mentioning my own brief contact with Emil Zátopek. I served as president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, and I am currently a member of its executive committee. I am also a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Culture and Olympic Heritage Commission. I have attended 19 Olympics, usually as a radio or television commentator. What launched my involvement with the Olympics was a book I first published in 1983, The Complete Book of the Olympics.
When the 1984 Olympics were awarded to Los Angeles, my hometown, I wanted to read a book that included the results of every event going back to 1896, as well as all of the best stories about the athletes and the competitions. Such a book did not exist, so I wrote it. I am an obsessive researcher, so it took me more than two years to complete the project. When I came upon the story of Emil Zátopek, he became one of my heroes. It wasn’t just his athletic achievements, but his sportsmanship that appealed to me, of which his relationship to Ron Clarke is just one example. In addition, I was moved that the communist government had punished Zátopek for opposing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
I wanted to meet Zátopek and interview him, but he was not allowed to have contact with the outside world. Then, in December 1990, the communist government in Czechoslovakia collapsed, and I saw my chance. I contacted the Czechoslovak Olympic Committee, who gave me Zátopek’s phone number. A Czech student called on my behalf and told Dana of my work. Emil agreed to be interviewed the following March. I was extremely excited. Not only would I get to meet one of my heroes, but he hadn’t been allowed to speak to the foreign press in decades, so I would also have a scoop.
Less than a week before I was due to leave for Prague, I called again to confirm the time and place of the interview. Dana informed me that Emil had been hospitalized with a heart problem and asked if I could delay the interview for a month or two. I agreed, but during that interim my father was diagnosed with rapid-onset terminal cancer. I stayed with my father until he died. And I never got to interview Emil Zátopek.
Skip ahead to the summer of 1994. I was invited by the International Olympic Committee to give a presentation at their Centennial Olympic Congress in Paris. Just before the start of the session at which I was to speak, I visited the men’s room. On the way out I almost smashed into an older man. It was Emil Zátopek. As he rushed to the urinals, he had an expression of urgency, so, despite my desire to introduce myself, I left him alone. I hoped I would encounter him again at the Congress, but I never did. In fact, I never met him. He died in 2000.
There is a coda to this story. Flash forward again, this time twenty years later, to October 2014. I was in Kyiv presenting an award to Ukraine’s leading Olympic historian, Maria Bulatova. One evening, I dined with a lively group of Olympic champions, historians and representatives of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee. After a few drinks, one of the Olympians, hammer thrower Jüri Tamm, lodged a complaint about the Olympic Movement. He said that there weren’t any good Olympic jokes. There were many football jokes and golf jokes and jokes about different sports, but the Olympics—nothing worth repeating.
Maria Bulatova spoke up. She explained that she had just returned from Prague and, coincidentally, her Czech academic colleagues had told her an Olympic joke.
Emil Zátopek is scheduled to speak to a large gathering in an outdoor stadium. Of course there will be other speakers, but really everyone is there to see and hear Zátopek. A few minutes before he is due to go out, he turns to the event organizers and says, “I need to go to the toilet.”
Keep in mind that I knew what the real Emil Zátopek looked like when he needed to go to the toilet, so it was easy for me to visualize this tale.
The event official says, “Of course Mr. Zátopek, just follow me and I’ll lead you to the men’s room.
“No,” says Zátopek. “I want to go to the women’s room.”
“That’s not allowed,” replies the shocked official.
“Really,” demands Zátopek. “Take me to the women’s room.”
“Look, Mr. Zátopek, you’re our national hero and we all respect you, but we just do not allow such things. Please follow me to the men’s room.”
Zátopek has no choice. He arrives at the men’s room and sees a long row of Czech men lined up at the urinals doing what men do at urinals. As soon as Zátopek appears in the doorway, one of the men calls out, “Look, it’s Emil Zátopek!”
All the men, their active body parts still in their hands, turn towards the doorway and spray their bodily fluids on the floor.
Zátopek turns to the event organizers and says, “See, don’t say I didn’t try to warn you.”