The Greatest Olympic Athletes – men’s distance

Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group continues with the men’s distance events


Emil Zatopek

No athlete in history has ever made such an impact in the distance events at one Games as Emil Zatopek did in 1952.

He was known as the ‘Czech Locomotive’ for his relentless training regime, which he modelled on what he had read about legendary Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi. In his early twenties he joined the Czech army where he was permitted to take time out to focus on training. It quickly paid off and he soon began to smash numerous national records, and on his international championships debut he finished fifth at the 1946 Europeans.

He was only just scratching the surface of his potential, though. Two years later he won his first Olympic title, taking gold in the 10,000m at the 1948 Games in just his second ever race over the distance. Zatopek almost made it a distance double, missing out on gold in the 5000m by just 0.2.

Two years later though, he succeeded in his quest for double gold at the European Championships and set championship records in both events. His 29:12.0 in the 10,000m was just 10 seconds shy of the world record he had set three weeks prior.

But as notable as his achievements were that year, Zatopek went one better in 1952. Competing at the Helsinki Olympics, Zatopek won an unprecedented triple gold in the distance events. As the defending champion and world-record holder in the 10,000m, his first gold at that Games came as no surprise, and he duly took gold with an Olympic record of 29:17.0, winning by more than 15 seconds.

His second gold, though, was a closer-fought affair and it was only in the final 150m of the 5000m that Zatopek hit the front, kicking away to win with another Olympic record.

But it was his third gold three days later that was most surprising. He had never run a marathon before, but he made a last-minute decision at the Olympics to make his debut over 26.2 miles. Despite his inexperience he tackled the distance like a seasoned pro and sat in behind pre-race favourite Jim Peters in the early stages.

Zatopek moved into the lead at 20km and opened up a huge gap on his rivals, going on to win with his third Olympic record of the Games, 2:23:03.2 – more than two and a half minutes ahead of the silver medallist. Peters, meanwhile, failed to finish.

Zatopek attempted to defend his European titles in 1954 and succeeded in the 10,000m but had to settle for bronze in the 5000m. By the time of the next Olympics, the 34-year-old Zatopek was battling injury and finished sixth in the marathon.

No athlete before or since Zatopek has ever won a distance triple at the Olympics.

Greatest Olympic distance runners

The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.

Lasse Viren
The Finnish distance runner came closest to emulating Emil Zatopek. He won a 5000m and 10,000m distance double at the 1972 Games, setting a world record in the latter, and in 1976 he attempted the same triple that Zatopek had won 24 years prior. It started well, defending his titles in the 5000m and 10,000m, and – just like Zatopek did in 1952 – Viren made his marathon debut at the Olympics. Despite an impressive run for a debutante, Viren finished fifth.

Kenenisa Bekele
The Ethiopian is the best distance runner of the current generation, arguably the greatest ever. In 2004 he set world records in both the 5000m and 10,000m, and at the Olympics that year he took silver in the 5000m and gold in the longer event. He went one better at the Beijing Olympics and took gold in both events. He achieved the same double at the 2009 World Championships.

Haile Gebrselassie
Before Bekele came along, Haile Gebrselassie was the all-conquering, record-breaking Ethiopian. He won his first 10,000m global gold at the 1993 World Championships at the age of 20, and defended his title two years later. His first Olympic gold came in 1996, followed by two more world titles in 1997 and 1999. Then, in an all-time classic race in 2000, he held off arch rival Paul Tergat in the 10,000m at the Syndey Olympics, winning his second Olympic gold.

Vladimir Kuts
As Zatopek was nearing the end of his career, Vladimir Kuts was just getting started. He won European 5000m gold in 1954, then followed it with a distance double at the 1956 Games, winning the 5000m and 10,000m. During his career he set four world records over 5000m and one at 10,000m.

» Click here to read the other athletes profiled in our ‘Greatest Olympic athletes’ countdown.

» All of these athletes and more are featured in AW‘s bookazine, The Greatest Olympic Athletes, available now for just £9.99.

» You can also order our latest special publication – The Greatest Show On Earth – our in-depth preview to the London 2012 Olympics.

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