Tales of Emil Zatopek, Ron Clarke and sport’s simple twist of fate

Sport has a history of playing out that way – of dispensing its favour on some great athletes and players while ignoring the claims of others as deserving

Where to begin. After once or twice waking up as if in Paris this week, still dreaming of three Olympic medals won and not as runners-up, on the heels of Emil Zatopek and his human locomotive, thoughts turn to tales of sport’s unfortunate nearly men (and women).

It was just before Monday lunchtime when World Athletics published the track and field (and road) schedule for next year’s Paris Olympics and the first 11 days of August 2024: whatever about potential gold medal doubles in Paris, and they are plenty, when you’re rereading each night the finest of all books about Zatopek – Richard Askwith’s Today We Die A Little – it’s that dreamy possibility of three gold medals at the one and same Olympics.

Remember that Zatopek was the first and last to achieve it in distance running, the then 30-year-old Czech runner tearing apart the 5,000m, 10,000m and finally his marathon debut at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Each time setting an Olympic record. He also won gold and silver in London 1948, set 18 world records, went undefeated over 10,000m for six years, to be deservedly regarded among the all-time greats.

Paris next year presents a teasingly touchable distance running treble over 1,500m, 5,000m and 10,000m. If you believe it Dutch runner Sifan Hassan actually tried it in Tokyo, winning gold in both longer distances, and bronze in the 1,500m.


Jakob Ingebrigtsen has already hinted he’d like to try it in Paris, although it would mean the young Norwegian running two races on August 2nd – the 1,500m heats in the morning, the 10,000m final 10 hours later. C’est possible, non?

Around the same time the Paris schedule was published, Lee Keegan announced his retirement from the Mayo senior football team, prompting a repeated line of high praise that he’s now among the all-time GAA greats never to win an All-Ireland.

At age 33, surely not past his prime, Keegan is also the only player to win five All Star awards without winning an All-Ireland, his six runner-up medals surely constitute one of the most unlucky career hauls of silverware in Gaelic football.

Truth is sport has a history of playing out that way, in both the winning and runners-up sense, athletes and players either fortunate or otherwise.

Like great actors without an Oscar, great musicians without a number one, on the Olympic stage, for every athlete considered deserving of winning a gold medal there is one who is considered unfortunate to come away without winning a medal of any colour.

Think of Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, or our own Eamonn Coghlan, just don’t start me talking about Kaarlo Maaninka and Moscow 1980.

Like Keegan, it takes nothing from respect or popularity for their exploits. Cycling had its own “eternal second” in Raymond Poulidor, still and forever to be celebrated in France as a folk hero given his repeated near misses in the Tour de France.

In the 14 Tours that he entered, Poulidor finished in the top three eight different times – second in three, and third in another five.

Such was his misfortune, not least in coming up against Jacques Anquetil, and later Eddy Merckx, the two all-time greats, Poulidor never once wore the maillot jaune either, a feat achieved by numerous less accomplished and in some cases undeserving of riders.

In the 1964 Tour, a flat tyre in the time-trial, a broken spoke on stage 14, and a crash into his own mechanic unquestionably cost him the outright win. He lost to Anquetil by 55 seconds, yet always remained unnerved: “The unluckier I was, the more the public liked me,” he later said. “And the more money I earned.”

In one of the more emotionally deserving moments of recent Tours, his grandson Mathieu van der Poel wore the maillot jaune in 2021.

In the summer of 1966, eight years after his retirement, Zatopek put his name behind an athletics meeting in Prague and, at the request of Czech television, wrote a letter of invitation to Australian distance runner Ron Clarke, already considered among the all-time greats, still however to win a gold medal on any stage.

By then Clarke had set 15 of his 17 world records, over eight distances, and had started the 1964 Olympic 10,000m in Tokyo as the overwhelming favourite, only for the American Billy Mills to upset everyone, Clarke finishing third.

He also won four silver medals in the Commonwealth Games, later collapsing in his final quest to win Olympic gold in the high altitude of Mexico City in 1968.

Such was his promise and popularity in Australia, Clarke was selected, at age 19, to light the flame during the opening ceremony at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. For many his own moment of Olympic glory was a mere matter of fate and faith.

Clarke duly won the 3,000m race in Prague, training with Zatopek the next morning and then taken by him for a shopping spree around the old city: “Emil drove to this big store and just parked right outside it,” Clarke later recalled. “This traffic policeman stormed over, and as soon as he got within recognition distance his face transformed: ‘Emil! Emil!’ Emil signed his book for him, and we left and went in.”

From there Zatopek drove him to Prague airport, walked him straight through customs to the steps to the plane, and in saying farewell pressed a small package, roughly wrapped in brown paper and string, into Clarke’s hands, with words to the effect of: “Look after this, not out of friendship because you deserve it”.

Accounts from here differ slightly, Clarke recalling to Askwith in Today We Die A Little, 44 years later, that shortly before landing in London, when “curiosity overcame me”, he opened the package to find an Olympic gold medal, one of the three Zatopek had won in Helsinki, freshly signed in the limited space above the lid: “To Ron Clarke, Prag. 19-7-1966.”

Either way, at take-off or landing, seated in the spot, overwhelmed by the understanding of what Zatopek’s gesture meant, Clarke momentarily wept, later saying: “I do know that no one cherishes any gift more than I do, not because of what it is but because of the man whose spirit it represents”.

If only all the most unfortunate runners-up in sport could be so fortunate and deserving of such a great tale.