Zatopek didn’t invent interval training, but it was through the Czech’s prodigious talent – and a total of 18 world records – which convinced the long-distance running intelligentsia to almost instantly reclassify Zatopek from fool to genius in the late 1940s.
By the mid-1950s, he was doing up to 100 fast 400m laps a day, with 150m jogs in between. In the months building up to the 1952 Games, Zatopek went wading through chest-high snow, much to the bemusement of onlookers, as much to train his mind to endure the extreme physical punishment inherent in long-distance running. He existed in an almost altered state where the pain no longer existed. “Pain is a merciful thing,” he once explained. “If it lasts without interruption, it dulls itself.”
He was, however, no masochist, just a garrulous multi-lingual realist beloved by fans and contemporaries alike who knew if he worked harder than everyone else, success was within reach. This despite an idiosyncratic gait which resembled an octopus in its death throes, his face rolling from side to side and frequently contorted with pain.
“I was not talented enough to run and smile at the same time,” he once said.