Alain Mimoun: Athlete who ran in the shadow of Emil Zatopek


Alain Mimoun was a French-Algerian distance runner who captured international affection, and Olympic gold, during his long rivalry and friendship with Emil Zatopek. He was ranked among the most beloved sports figures in France, a nation he adopted as his home after he left Algeria to serve in the French army during the Second World War. After nearly losing his foot from combat wounds he became one of the greatest runners of the immediate postwar era.

He recovered from his injuries in time to qualify for the 1948 London Olympics, which marked the beginning of Mimoun's rivalry with Zatopek, the distance runner who became known as "the Czech nobody could pass". Mimoun finished second to Zatopek in the 10,000 metres. Zatopek also took silver in the 5,000m. The same year, the two athletes having become friends, Mimoun was best man at Zatopek's wedding.

Two years later, at the European Championships in Brussels, Mimoun trailed Zatopek again in both the 5,000m and 10,000m. At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki Zatopek made sporting history by winning gold in the 5,000m, 10,00-m and the marathon; again, Mimoun was runner-up in the 5,000m and 10,000m; by then he was known as Zatopek's "little shadow".

Things were different at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, when Mimoun made his marathon debut in temperatures of around 37C. A few hours before, Mimoun, who wore No 13 – a lucky number, he said later – had just learned that his wife had given birth to their first child, a girl. Zatopek, meanwhile, was still recovering from a hernia operation a few weeks earlier.

In temperatures of nearly 40C, Zatopek and Mimoun made a striking pair. Zatopek's running action has been described as "like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt", while Mimoun, running with a gentler style, appeared to move easily through the streets of Melbourne past the cheering crowds.

After two hours and 25 minutes Mimoun entered the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where he was greeted by tens of thousands of spectators. He later recalled that the applause exploded "comme une bombe atomique." Crossing the line first, he waited for his friend. "I was sure Emil was there at my heels," Mimoun told Sports Illustrated in 1972. "I was hoping he would be second. I was waiting for him. Then I thought, well, he will be third — it will be nice to stand on the podium with him again." Zatopek, in the end, came in sixth.

"Emil, congratulate me," Mimoun recalled saying. "Now, I am an Olympic champion. I am no longer your shadow. I am the sun." He continued, "Emil turned and looked at me, as if he were waking from a dream. Then he snapped to attention. Emil took off his cap and he saluted me. Then he embraced me." The memory moved Mimoun to tears. "For me," he said, "that was better than the medal."

Mimoun born in 1921 in Algeria; his talent was evident from an early age. During the war he fought with the French through North Africa and into Sicily and southern Italy, including the battle for Monte Cassino. He was honoured by several French presidents, including Charles de Gaulle. "You and I have something in common," the General told him. "We last."

Mimoun settled in Paris after the war and began training for the Olympics. Besides his athletic career he was a civil servant in the French athletics programme. Michel Jazy, another French Olympian of the same era who shared a room with Mimoun for six weeks, described a runner of unusual intensity and professionalism. "He woke me at 5.30 in the morning to go and run, and in the evening he made me go to bed at 8.30," Jazy recalled. "Even though we were at the Olympics I couldn't go to any of the parties."

As well as his Olympic medals, Mimoun won four world cross country championships between 1949 and 1958. He was still running 10 miles a day at the age of 80.

Alain Mimoun, athlete: born Telagh, Algeria 1 January 1921; died Champigny-sur-Marne 27 June 2013.