“If I Can Get Better, Why Not?”: Emil Zátopek

As you probably know, the Rio 2016 Olympics is currently in progress. To me, the Olympics is the greatest show of all time and watching all the athletes living their dreams is truly inspirational. Being a runner myself, I have been naturally waiting for the athletics to begin and behold the best of the best at my favourite sport. To occupy the wait, I have, of course, been watching the other sports – I have discovered how thrilling synchronised diving can be (despite the pool being green) and gymnastics is also very impressive with their gravity defying flips! However, I have also been watching videos and documentaries from past Olympics. I find this really interesting and I love being inspired by all the incredible stories. One athlete that I came across in my exploration through the web was the legendary Czech runner, Emil Zátopek. I had heard of Zátopek briefly before but my knowledge was very limited. After a little research, I quickly discovered for myself how truly magnificent the man was and knew that I would have to write a post about his career and impact on running. Most importantly, I want to showcase why the so-called “Czech Locomotive” inspires me and the lessons we can learn from his unique spirit and character.

London 1948 10,000m podium.

For those of you who are unaware, Emil Zátopek was an Olympic runner from Czech Republic. He was born 19th September 1922 and died 22nd November 2000. Throughout his career, Zátopek won no less than four Olympic gold medals and one silver during the two Olympics he competed in (London 1948 and Helsinki 1952). He is currently the only Olympian ever to win the 10,000m, 5000m and marathon in the same games and has a legacy of being one of the greatest runners ever.

Winning the Helsinki 1952 Marathon

Despite that, it isn’t Zátopek’s success that really makes him stand out (although that does help). He is renowned for his incredible grit and ruthless training. The athlete popularised interval training. He trained harder than ever thought was humanly possible – in fact, his regime would be impossible to most – even his fellow athletes! At the time, people were confused, calling him a fool and suggesting he was training like a sprinter. “Why should I practice running slow?” Zátopek responded, “I already know how to run slow. I want to learn how to run fast.” And run fast he did – proving his methods to be effective.

“If I can get better, why not?” is a quote by Zátopek that I think completely sums up his pure determination and attitude towards running. For example, when ever Zátopek felt tired, he would make an effort to go even faster! He would never fall back on training – once even attempting to run on a flight to Australia- and would train in any conditions (wisely claiming that bad conditions were a blessing as they made the good conditions seem a lot easier). Zátopek is a true example of dedication to a sport and the whole idea of getting out what you put in (a motto of which I like to live by) which makes him idolised throughout all sporting communities today.

Zatopek had an obvious pained running expression.

Another notable thing about this running legend was his lack of seemingly natural talent. Zátopek earned his nickname (“The Czech Locomotive”) by the tired noises he would make as he ran. His face was always a picture of complete agony and he hardly had the most efficient running style – unlike the top athletes of today who have impeccable technique (particularly like this feature of Zátopek as I, personally, don’t have a very relaxed or impressive running style at all!). He didn’t have the flat-out speed comparable to some of his rivals, nor the natural ability. This made sure that the secret to the athlete’s victories were almost all down to his incredible grit and determination. No matter what, Zátopek refused to go down without a fight. My favourite example of this is the 5000m in Helsinki. By the last bend, Zátopek was in fourth place after being over-taken (and any runner knows how hard it is to fight back) but, although he was exhausted, he mustered just enough energy to pull off devastating sprint finish over-taking the already sprinting Alain Mimoun, Herbert Schade and finally Chris Chataway to secure a gold medal and an incredible perfomance! (click here for the amazing video).

A dramatic 5000m finish with Zatopek in the lead.

For me, however, the most inspirational thing about this amazing athlete is his astounding spirit. “An athlete cannot run with money in his pocket. He must run with hope in his heart and dreams in his head.” is one of his favourite quotes and I think it epitomises the heart of the Olympic Games and should be enforced into more of the competitions today. The champion was also a sportsman, valuing friendship even above victory making him a admirable role-model who perhaps deserves further recognition. Zátopek lived and breathed his sport, vowing never to give up (as that simply wasn’t a phrase in his vocabulary). Throughout the time when I was struggling with my confidence in running,  I would quite easily accept defeat but I am currently building up my mental strength and attempting to inject my desire to win into my races, inspired by the likes of Emil Zátopek. Pushing yourself to the limit is a critical ability to have whilst competing and it is almost essential to have a foundation of mental grit -demonstrated by Zátopek. He also is great motivation to train hard – though perhaps not quite as hard as he did- showing that anything can be achieved with the right level of persistence.

“Great is the victory, but the friendship off all is greater.” – said by Zatopek

To conclude, I believe that Zátopek is a perfect representation of the ideals of a runner: spirit, sportsmanship and dedication were all key traits of the “Czech Locomotive” and should be aimed for by anyone with a particularly sport or hobby. I really urge you to read up about this legend as I feel that I have only summarised his achievements: “Today we die a little: the Rise And Fall Of Olympic Legend, Emil Zátopek” is a great and inspiring read. In addition, I would really be grateful for any suggestions of other amazing Olympians/ runners that inspire you so that I can research them because I find it really exciting and interesting. Myself, I must recommend swimmer Eric Moussambani and, particularly, the incredible young runner Kayla Montgomery.

I hope you enjoyed reading my slightly different blog post today, let me know if you want any more like this. Writing this has got me even more excited for the Olympic running events so I am going to watch the Heptathlon now (their high-jumping is insane)! Let me know what events you like watching so that I can make the most out of the amazing Rio 2016!

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Ellie xx



  1. Inspirational post, you have a real talent for writing! I do agree; watching the olympics is just astounding!! Although – being in Rio – it has meant staying up a little too late on some occasions..especially last night watching the gymnastics!Xx


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