Track legend Emil Zatopek dies at age 78

PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) — Legendary long-distance runner Emil Zatopek, one of the 20th century's most famous athletes and best known Czechs, has died at age 78, a hospital spokesperson said Wednesday.

Zatopek, a four-time Olympic champion in long-distance track events, died Tuesday at 7 p.m. (1800 GMT) in Prague's military hospital, where he was treated after a stroke he suffered in late October, said the spokesperson who did not want her name to be used. Zatopek had been reported in critical condition since he was hospitalized.

The Olympic champion, who set a total of 18 world records during his 15-year career and became the first athlete to finish a 10,000-meter race under 29 minutes, enjoyed cult status in his homeland for over five decades despite being ostracized by the Communist regime after 1968.

Milan Jirasek, the head of the Czech Olympic Committee, said that Zatopek's death was "very sad news, although not completely unexpected.''

"We knew that he was in critical condition for some time already,'' he told The Associated Press. "But with his death, the legend does not disappear. Everywhere in the world, even young generations know him and his achievements.

"Unfortunately, his health did not allow him to travel all around the world and enjoy his fame wherever he was invited,'' Jirasek said.

In a statement sent to The Associated Press from Monte Carlo, the president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, Lamine Diack, said the news of Zatopek's death "has come as a great shock to the athletic world.''

"I pay homage, together with the whole of the world sports movement, to his memory,'' Diack said.

The International Olympic Committee said Wednesday it was deeply saddened by Zatopek's death.

"Emil Zatopek was an exceptional athlete whose achievements, even today, are a source of enthusiasm and admiration for everyone. The athletics world has lost one of its greatest champions,'' Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the IOC, said in a statement from Geneva.

Also, Czech President Vaclav Havel expressed his sadness at Zatopek's death.

In a message sent to his wife Dana on Wednesday, Havel said: "I learned the very sad news about the death of your husband, a great sportsman and athlete.''

"Part of the background of his legendary sports achievements which we will always remember are not only his human qualities and natural modesty, but also the fact that you were a lifetime support to him,'' Havel said.

Zatopek was born on Sept. 19, 1922, in the town of Koprivnice in the industrial north-east of the country, and studied at one of the colleges of the famous shoemaker Tomas Bata in Zlin, where he also got engaged in athletics in 1941.

He ran his first official race — 5,000 meters — in 1943 and immediately became Czechoslovakia's best long-distance runner.

After the end of World War II in 1945, Zatopek started to regularly face the world's athletics elite and, within a year, he clocked the world's best times in 5,000 and 10,000 meters, his showcase events.

He took his first Olympic gold medal in London, 1948, and added three more golds in Helsinki four years later, where he dominated the 5K, 10K and marathon races, a result which lifted him alongside such greats as Paavo Nurmi and Jesse Owens.

The 5K race at Helsinki, where Zatopek won thanks to a 200-meter crushing finish, entered history books as one of the most thrilling athletics races ever.

"I wanted to win every time I was on the track,'' Zatopek told his biographers. "At Helsinki, I was tired after the 10K race, but I still shattered all my rivals.''

Zatopek wasn't known only for his phenomenal results, but also for his unorthodox training methods, which were adopted by hundreds of athletes in the last five decades.

Instead of practicing long distances, Zatopek preferred dozens of 400-meter stretches run at full speed. That way, he practiced both his explosiveness and persistence.

Nicknamed 'The Engine' after winning an unprecedented 38 10,000-meter races between 1948-54, Zatopek became a living legend of Czechoslovak athletics immediately after ending his career in the 1950s but fell out of grace with the Communist regime after criticizing the Soviet-led military invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

As an outspoken advocate of the so-called "Prague Spring,'' a period of democratization in Communist Czechoslovakia, Zatopek was dismissed from his senior position in the Czechoslovak military shortly after the invasion and sent to a Czech uranium mine where he was forced to work for six years.

Despite disappearing from the limelight and his well-known modesty and humbleness, Zatopek remained a renowned public figure, not least because of his model 52-year marriage with fellow-athlete Dana Ingrova, a former Olympic champion in javelin, with whom he shared not only love of sports but also the same birthday.

Zatopek's wife, then already known under the name Dana Zatopkova, won Olympic gold in the javelin in Helsinki in 1952 and an Olympic silver medal in Rome in 1960.

In 1975, Zatopek became the first Czech athlete to be awarded the United Nations' Pierre de Coubertin Prize for promoting Fair Play.

In the past two years, Zatopek was hospitalized several times with various ailments and injuries. He suffered a stroke late last month.

Earlier injuries included a broken leg, which left the athlete confined to bed for several months and resulted in a period of clinical depression and hallucinations, during which he didn't communicate with the outside world, and a number of serious viral infections.

Zatopek is survived by his wife. Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.

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