Did an athlete lap the rest of the runners after an illness that left him in bed for a long time before the competition?

Sports Asked on June 2, 2021

I recall reading some time ago a rather inspiring and interesting story about the importance of rest while training for a sport.

This specific story was about a runner in the 50s that was training very hard for a 5K or 10K Championship, probably the European Athletic Championships. Back in those days, stated the text I read, runners would train hard without interleaving some resting days. Apparently, the benefits of rest were undiscovered, so they assumed that the more your trained, the better the results would be.

However, that specific athlete had some serious health problem about a month before the race, leading him to remain at bed for a couple of weeks. Obviously, he could not train in all this period and he was very concerned about losing all his fitness for the race.

Despite this fear, the athlete decided to go and run the race, and then it became obvious that his fitness wasn’t worse but way better: not even did he win the race, but he even lapped the rest of the runners (that is, they were more than 400 m after him).

I remember reading this some years ago in a book, but cannot recall more than the details I already mentioned. Some may be even wrong (maybe it was not in the 50s and maybe it was another championship). Since I somehow assumed he as Finnish, I did some research on some long-distance runners like Paavo Nurmi, but nothing arose from that.

Is this story true? Was there such situation?

One Answer

It was Emil Zátopek!!

Thanks to JeopardyTempest in comments I could track the results from the European Athletics Championships. There, I found a couple of interesting and promising results:

Oslo 1946 - 10,000 metres. Difference of 39 seconds.

# Name Country Time
1 Viljo Heino Finland 29:52.0 CR
Helge Perälä Finland 30:31.4

Brussels 1950, 10,000 metres. Difference of 1 min 9 seconds.

# Name Country Time
1 Emil Zátopek Czechoslovakia 29:12.0 CR
2 Alain Mimoun France 30:21.0

Also interesting the 5,000 metres, with a difference of 23 seconds:

# Name Country Time
1 Emil Zátopek Czechoslovakia 14:03.0 CR NR
2 Alain Mimoun France 14:26.0
3 Gaston Reiff Belgium 14:26.2
4 Väinö Mäkelä Finland 14:30.8

Following the Emil Zátopek hypothesis I found a couple of definitive articles:

What Is the Zatopek Phenomenon?

A term for the beneficial effects associated with tapering, named after Czech middle distance Olympic champion Emil Zatopek. His intense training prior to the 1950 European Games was interrupted by illness that hospitalized him for two weeks. He came out of hospital just two days before competing in the 10,000m race, which he won convincingly. He also went on to win the 5,000m event. His success has been attributed to the benefits of his forced tapering.

where tapering means A period of time within a training program where the athlete reduces the volume and intensity of his training in readiness for a targeted event or rest cycle.

Then in History Lesson: The Zatopek Effect we read:

In 1950 he was training for the European Games when he became sick shortly before the competition. He was hospitalized and spent the recuperative time in bed. Two days before the Games, which then were second only to the Olympics in status, he was released from the hospital. Against the advise of his doctors, he raced both the 10,000 and the 5,000 meters. Despite having not trained for several days he won both races, lapping the field in the 10,000 and winning by 23 seconds in the 5,000. In each race he ran the second-fastest time ever recorded for the distance. And this was four years before his career peak.

I could not find information whether he lapped 2nd place or not, but 1 min 9 seconds should be very close, given that the second place runner averaged 1 min 13 seconds per lap for the race.

Correct answer by fedorqui on June 2, 2021

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