Emil Zátopek is certainly the first legendary runner I’ve ever heard of. I remember him being the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question during a family game. My grandfather was surprised I didn’t know the famous ‘Czech Locomotive’ (hey, I was just a kid and he was a runner from the fifties!) and went on about how he had won everything in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. I recently checked these facts and even though he didn’t win any medal in hammer throwing, diving or gymnastics, he is still the only athlete to have won gold on the 5,000 metres, the 10,000 metres, and the Marathon in the same Olympics.
I love the story of how he won the marathon in Helsinki. He had originally only enrolled for the 5,000m and the 10,000m and had won both of them (in both races, fellow Frenchman Alain Mimoun finished second because of this damn Czech). After that, he had nothing to do for the rest of the Olympics and had never raced a marathon, so he said “What the heck, I’ll just enrol for the marathon then”. He had nothing to lose, and lose he didn’t! He decided to use Jim Peters as his pacemaker (at the time, the dude was holding the world record for the distance). Zátopek being of a chatty nature, after 15k, he asked Peters what he thought of the race. Peters took this opportunity to try and nip the competition in the bud and replied “too slow”, when he was actually going too fast to try and exhaust the inexperienced Czech. Zátopek was a trusting character so he followed Peters’ advice and went faster. Eventually, Peters was caught out at his own game and didn’t even finish the race. Zátopek went on winning the race only 2 minutes slower than Peters’ record at the time. Not too bad for a first Marathon.
There’s another bunch of anecdotes about the Czech legend in Born to run, once again I strongly recommend you buy this book and you’ll read even crazier things about Zátopek. Like how gruelling was his self-inflicted training, how friendly and wholehearted he was (he gave one of his medals to an unlucky Australian runner he’d just made friends with). It’s no surprise he was selected as the Greatest Runner of All Time by Runner’s World Magazine.