Runner's World's Joe Henderson remembers Zatopek's legacy:
The first foreign name to pierce my consciousness in family talk about track was that of the great Czech, Emil Zatopek. He won the 10,000 at the first post-World War II Olympics, then broke records repeatedly the next few years. Zatopek peaked at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, when he won the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon a triple gold-medal sweep never accomplished before or since.
To me, Zatopek is the finest runner of the past 50 years. I view him that way for how he once raced, but even more so, for how he has continued to live and give. I'd never expected to meet this great man from a then-remote land. But we came together by chance while waiting to board flights out of Munich, Germany, following the 1972 Olympics. After he blew kisses to friends outside the boarding area, I worked up the courage to approach him.
"Uh, excuse me, are you Emil Zatopek?" I asked, already knowing he was, but not knowing if he understood English.
"Why yes, Zatopek," he answered without missing a beat. "And what is your name, please?" Mine meant nothing to him, but he still took time to talk to me for 20 minutes.
Zatopek had come to Munich as a guest of the International Olympic Committee to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his triple victories.
"It is odd," he said, "to have all this how do you say it? acclaim. In my country I am just a common man, a nobody."
Zatopek didn't talk politics directly, but he was officially a "nobody" in Czechoslovakia. When a revolt against the Soviet domination of his country broke out in 1968, he took the wrong side in the struggle and lost his rank as an army colonel. This national hero was reduced to working as a garbage collector and a street sweeper, jobs normally reserved in his country for the mentally retarded.
In Munich, Zatopek excused himself and walked toward the plane that would take him to Prague, back to his simple life as a nobody, a man whose name will forever live in Olympic history. I have never seen him again, but have followed him from afar through news stories.
Tapping his great reserve of stamina, Zatopek, now 78, outlasted the Communist government in his country (now the Czech Republic). The current Czech rulers realize what a treasure he is and allow him to accept acclaim freely. By all accounts, he handles it well.
One of his finest moves was a quiet one. Ron Clarke, who was a frequent world record setter a generation ago but never an Olympic gold medalist, came to visit the man who had won so many. As they parted, Zatopek handed the Australian a small package and told him to open it later.
Clarke's worries that he was smuggling something out of the country vanished when he found a gold medal inside, with a note saying, "You earned this."