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Measuring excellence: The greatest Olympian ever

By Anthony Lauriello     8/17/12 7:00pm

The last two weeks gave birth to the Ho- meric epitaph of greatest Olympian ever. Even in the superlative-ridden world of sports, this title stands out.

The recipient of this title was Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who has won more Olympic medals than anyone - 22 total and 18 gold medals, to be precise. Certainly this is an impressive achievement and one for the history books.

However, this does not make Phelps the greatest Olympian ever. If we measure great- ness simply by the number of gold medals an athlete has accrued, then we are also al- most certainly ceding the title to a swimmer, whose sport is conducive to winning numer- ous medals in a single Olympiad.

Instead of how many pieces of precious metal hang from his or her neck, we should judge the greatest Olympian ever by the mag- nitude of the athletic accomplishment, how he changed his sport, and how he inspired his nation.

With these criteria the greatest Olympian ever is not the household name of Phelps but a man whom few Americans have ever heard of, Emil Zatopek.

A Czech with the misfortune to grow up in the middle of the 20th Century, Zatopek ran to greatness in the backdrop of political turmoil.

His early 20s, often the peak for track ath- letes, were spent training in used training shoes under the watchful eyes of occupying Nazi soldiers in Prague. When the Russians replaced the Germans, Zatopek joined the Red Army so that he could continue to train full-time for the Olympics.

Zatopek's training regime was as brutal as the armies swapping control of his home-

land. Learning from Pavvo Nurmi, the great Finnish runner of the 1920's, Zatopek helped develop fartleks, or interval running. These workouts involve doing a large volume of repeats or distances at a fast pace with little rest and have today come to form the basis of most modern training regimens.

Famous for saying "Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I want to learn to run fast," Zatopek pushed both the pace and amount of running that athletes had previously handled.

The difficulty of these workouts would be enough for most men, but not for Emile Zato- pek. During the war he ran in beat up and used tennis shoes and afterward he ran in combat boots. He ran in the snow. He ran on a bathtub treadmill that helped dry the laun- dry. He ran with his wife on his back.

There are countless stories of Zatopek's training and practices, many of them seem- ingly superhuman, but they all contain one underlying commonality: No matter the situ- ation, Zatopek ran fast.

In 1948, when Zatopek was 25, the results of his hard work paid off: At the London Olympics he won gold in the 10,000 meter and silver in the 5,000 meter. Having such a successful double is rare in distance running, with the amount of strain and effort that each race takes.

In London, Zatopek cemented himself as the preeminent distance runner of his time, but it was four years later in Helsenki that he became a legend. Zatopek started off the 1952 Olympics by repeating gold in the 10,000 me- ter. Not content to merely go back to back in track's longest race, he then won gold in the 5,000 meter.

Winning both these distance events shows an utter domination of the sport. When Mo Farrah of Great Britain completed this feat in the 2012 Olympics he became an overnight

national hero. Zatopek had accomplished the greatest dream of long distance track run- ners. And then he decided to run a marathon.

When most people choose to embark on a 26.2 mile run they do weeks of preparation and tone down their training as the race ap- proaches so that they are both well trained and well rested for one of the most grueling endurance events in sport.

Zatopek's first marathon came at the Olympics after already winning the longest events in track. It would be like Micheal Phelps deciding to jump in the 10km open swim on a whim.

Englishman Jim Peters, the heavy favorite in the Marathon at the time, knew of Zato- pek's impressive resume but remained confi- dent he could drop the Czech usurper early on in the race.

Peters went out at a fast pace and Zatopek stayed close at hand. The two ran neck and neck, with Peters trying to crush the spirit of the already tired Zatopek.

Mid-way through the race, Zatopek asked him if the pace was too fast. Distance running is as much a mental sport as a physical one, and Peters thought that Zatopek was break- ing. He told the first time marathoner that he thought the pace was "a bit slow."

Peters must have thought that this was the moment he would win gold, even "the Czech locomotive" could not win the Olympic mara- thon on his first try. Then Zatopek sped up.

Jim Peters never finished the 1952 Olympic Marathon, having exhausted himself keeping up with Zatopek. Zatopek won gold, just like he had in the 5,000 and the 10,000. And to top it all off, he set the Olympic record in all three of the events.

These performances might never be matched in the world of distance running, but they are not the only reason Zatopek endures as the greatest Olympian ever. Zato-

pek battled not only records and world-class competitors but tyranny.

Before the 1952 Olympics, the Soviet con- trolled Czech team excluded an athlete be- cause his father was a political prisoner. Zato- pek publicly refused to go to Helsinki without him. Amazingly, the Soviet government caved and allowed the athlete to compete.

However, Zatopek's luck ended in 1968 during the Prague Spring, when Soviet troops brutally put down seeds of revolt in the Czech capital. The communists punished Zatopek for speaking against this intervention by stripping him of his honors and making him work in a uranium mine for six years.

However, Zatopek's endurance and deter- mination once again outlasted his opponent and he lived to see the Iron Curtain fall and his country free for the first time since Nazi boots landed on the ground in 1938.

Zatopek died in 2000 and he posthumous- ly won the Pierre de Coubertin award for the True Spirit of Sportsmanship.

Michael Phelps' 22 gold medals have made America proud and demonstrated on a global stage the extent of human potential at a time when such displays are more accessible than ever.

He reminded us of the upper echelons of human potential at a time when many need- ed reminding, and he did so with the entire world watching.

However, he will be hard pressed to top what Zatopek's unfailing determination and courage did to the nation of Czechoslovakia. And of course, for all of the races that Phelps won, and all the events he competed in, none of them were his first time.

The man whose athletic accomplishments, while monumental, pale in comparison to the courage and fidelity he showed his nation, is the athlete who should be universally known as the greatest Olympian ever.

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