Strange But True: Don’t Miss The Bus

A familiar sight to fans who watch distance races is the winner crossing the finish line and almost collapsing. His face is pained, and he is gasping for breath. His legs can scarcely hold him. He has to be supported by friends, who lead him gently off the track.

Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia finished races that way. Spectators thought he might even die unless he received oxygen. But it was just an act. Zatopek knew that fans liked to see “the big finish” and he never disappointed them. He found racing fun, and he loved a good joke while running. Once, in an Olympic trial, he took the lead, but then dropped back. When he was far back in the pack, he ran alongside an American runner.

“Hurry up, or you’ll miss the bus,” Zatopek said, and then sprinted into the lead again.

In the 1948 Olympics, when Zatopek was 25 years old, he won the 10,000-meter race and finished second in the 5,000-meter. But in 1952, in Helsinki, Emil Zatopek demonstrated to the world how a great champion could run a race and have fun at the same time.

First he entered the 10,000-meter race (10,000 meters is a little less than six and a half miles). For about 3,000 meters he was content to let someone else set the pace. Suddenly he raced ahead and took the lead. With every stride he seemed about to fall down on the track. Yet when someone came up to challenge, Zatopek promptly ran away from him. He finished first. His time was 29 minutes 17 seconds, beating his own Olympic record by 42 seconds.

“I am disappointed,” Zatopek told reporters earnestly. “I wasn’t fast at all. I will try to do better in the 5,000-meter race.”

In the 5,000-meter race, Zatopek was behind the leaders for a long time. At the 4,000-meter mark, Zatopek made his move. It was an exciting finish. On the last turn the Czechoslovakian took an outside lane and sprinted to the finish line ahead of Algeria’s Alain Mimoun. Zatopek broke the Olympic record by nine seconds!

Then Zatopek announced that he would compete in the marathon (the longest distance event–26 1/2 miles). He had never run that event before. When asked how he expected to win, Zatopek replied, “If I didn’t think I could win, I would not have entered.”

After 15 miles, Zatopek was in the lead. Not far behind was Jim Peters of Great Britain, who had been favored to win. Zatopek dropped back until he was running alongside Peters. The Czech, who spoke several languages, said to Peters, “I have never run a marathon before, but aren’t we running a little slow?”

Perhaps Zatopek was trying to discourage the Britisher, or maybe he was having his little joke. A couple of miles later, Peters quit the race because of cramps. Zatopek continued on and won the race, breaking the record by more than six minutes.

When reporters asked him about the marathon, he said, “Really, it’s a very boring race.”

There is one more incident to report about the 1952 Olympics. Emil Zatopek’s wife, Dana, also entered an event, the women’s javelin competition.

It was only natural that she would win and also set an Olympic record!

From Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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  1. My favorite cranky distance athlete of all time is Juha Mieto, the Finnish cross country skier:

    There are a bunch of funny incidents, including:

    “there was the time, or so the story goes, when Mieto was pressured into skiing the 50-kilometer cross-country event during the 1978 world championships. Angered, he skied the course, finished, then defiantly trudged into race headquarters with his skis still on and continued to the shower.”

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