Sportswriter Red Smith once described Emil Zátopek’s style as “the most frightful horror spectacle since Frankenstein.” Where other runners were graceful, like human gazelles, the Czech “seemed on the verge of strangulation; his hatchet face was crimson; his tongue lolled out.” But Zátopek’s fierce function defeated silkier form, and at the 1948 London Olympics, he won the 10,000 meters and placed second in the 5,000. He did even better four years later in Helsinki, capturing the gold in both events as well as in the marathon. By the end of his 17-year track career, he had broken or rebroken world records 18 times.
He became a sought-after coach from Indonesia to Egypt and a hero everywhere except, suddenly, in the Communist Politburo back home. During the 1968 reform efforts that came to be known as the Prague Spring, Zátopek and his wife, Dana, stood on the front lines, supporting the fight for greater freedom and improved living standards. When Soviet tanks rolled into the capital that August, the Zátopeks and other protesters paid for their dissent. Zátopek was stripped of his colonel’s rank in the army and reduced to manual labor. He was not allowed to travel abroad until the 1972 Games and was eventually assigned to translate foreign press reports.
With the end of the Cold War, the Czech defense minister issued a public apology to Zátopek, and today, at 73, he’s on personal terms with a president he admires, Václav Havel. Emil and Dana, 73, now live in a small but comfortable home on the outskirts of Prague. The couple—who never had children—met when Dana set a record in the javelin just before the London Olympics. Zátopek was asked to pose with her; 2½ months later, they were married. While he was still competing, she sometimes helped him build strength by riding on his shoulders as he ran. Now, she supports him in other ways. A nerve condition in his left leg hinders his walking, and he relies on a cane. “I am lazy,” he confesses. “In our family, Dana does all the work.” He notes that modern training techniques have shaved more than a full minute off his 13 min. 57 sec. personal best in the 5,000. Today, he adds modestly, “I would never be Olympic champion.”