With sport beginning to return to normality after the Second World War, there was no lack of outstanding performers, among them Roger Bannister, Ben Hogan, Little Mo and Sugar Ray Robinson, but none quite matched the achievements of Emil Zatopek, the Czech distance runner who won the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon at the Helsinki Olympics of 1952.

With sport beginning to return to normality after the Second World War, there was no lack of outstanding performers, among them Roger Bannister, Ben Hogan, Little Mo and Sugar Ray Robinson, but none quite matched the achievements of Emil Zatopek, the Czech distance runner who won the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon at the Helsinki Olympics of 1952.

He was first seen in Britain during the 1948 Olympics in London where, at 25, he won the 10,000m, breaking the Finnish monopoly. His fitness was extraordinary, based on arduous running done while still in army boots. No athlete had ever trained longer or harder.

He ran his first 10,000m only two months before the Olympics. In his second he came within two seconds of the world record. The possibility arose of the first 5,000m and 10,000m Olympic double since 1912. However, he had to be content with the silver medal in the 5,000m after an astonishing last-lap sprint in which he almost made up a deficit of some 50 metres on Gaston Rieff, of Belgium. Having won the 10,000m, he remained unbeaten over that distance until 1954 (38 races).

Helsinki challenged him with an almost impossible schedule. He won the 10,000m by 100 metres. Two days later he was third in a 5,000m heat. Two days after that he won the final by almost five metres, and three days later he lined up for his first marathon. In the meantime his wife, Dana, had won the women's javelin.

The favourite for the marathon was Britain's Jim Peters, who that year had taken more than five minutes off the world best. Zatopek knew Peters was the man to follow, but had never met him, so had to seek out his number (187) before the start. He found him and said modestly: "Hello, I'm Zatopek."

At half-distance Zatopek moved alongside Peters and asked him whether the pace was good enough. Peters, trying to conceal his growing exhaustion, said it was too slow. "Are you sure?" Zatopek asked. "Yes," said Peters. Zatopek increased it, taking a 10-second lead over the Briton who eventually dropped out.

Zatopek ran into the stadium pale and frowning, but as he crossed the line his face broke into a huge smile. His feet were raw and bleeding, but he ran to Dana and embraced her. He had set his third Olympic record. They shared their triumphs, just as they shared their years of hardship, and the same birthday, 19 September 1922. A more charming couple it would be difficult to find.

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