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When Kiev was occupied in 1941, members of the Dynamo team found work in Kiev Bakery No. 1 and started to play football in an empty lot. The Germans offered them the opportunity to train in the Zenith Stadium and suggested a friendly with a team picked from the German army.
The Ukrainians accepted the offer, named their team Start and the match took place on June 12, 1942. The Germans, in good physical condition, scored the first goal. But by half-time Start had edged 2-1 ahead, much to the anger of a German officer from the Commandant’s box who stormed into the team’s dressing room and ordered them “not to play so keenly” - threatening to shoot them if they did not obey.
But Start ignored the warning and surged into a 4-1 lead. At that point the German Commandant of Kiev, Major-General Eberhardt, and his staff left, and the referee ended the game early. On July 17 the Germans fielded a stronger team, but still lost 6-0. Further Dynamo victories against the Hungarian team MSG Wal (5-1 and 3-2) followed.
The German administration was so outraged that they decided to teach the Ukrainians a lesson - and so the “ever victorious” German Flakelf team was invited. But this German team also lost to Dynamo and not a word about it appeared in the newspapers.
The Ukrainian team were given three days to think about their position and on August 9th there was a “friendly” rematch. In spite of the warnings Dynamo again defeated the German team - for the last time. Most of the Ukrainian team members were arrested and executed in Babyn Yar, but they are not forgotten. There is a monument to them in Kiev and their heroism is said to have inspired the film Escape to Victory.
Wilma Rudolph’s triple gold in 1960
The American overcame polio to bring home a bronze from Melbourne aged 16 before dominating the sprints four years later to show ‘the potential for greatness lives within us all’
When the founding father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, said that the paradigm of the movement he revived was “exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, mind and will” he could not have foreseen the emergence at the Melbourne Games in 1956 of a 16-year-old schoolgirl who embodied his ideals so perfectly. A bronze medal in the women’s 4x100 metres relay, while admirable enough, is not an orthodox symbol of track and field greatness. For a teenager at her first Olympics it speaks as much of promise as achievement. But for Wilma Rudolph, who had been given extended leave from her junior year studies at Burt High School in Clarksville, Tennessee, to fly 9,200 miles to compete, if that medal had remained the zenith of her career it would still have represented one of the most remarkable exploits in the rich history of athletic endeavour, even if it would not have been given much exposure beyond her home state.
It was not that she had been running for only five years before she stepped on to the podium at the MCG with her team-mates. She had only been able to run for five years. In 1944, at the age of four, she contracted polio and wore a leg brace until she was nine. For a further two years she wore an orthopaedic shoe for support, but such was the dedication of her family, and her own indomitable spirit, physical ebullience and determination to join her numerous siblings and friends at play, that by the age of 11 she had proved to her mother that she could flourish unaided. Nine years after discarding that shoe she had four Olympic medals, three of them gold, and held two world records. Even by the extraordinary standards set by those Olympians who overcame formidable adversities, Rudolph’s story is unique.
Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born prematurely, weighing four and a half pounds in 1940, in St Bethlehem to the north-east of Clarksville, the 20th of her father Ed’s 22 children and the sixth of her mother Blanche’s eight. Ed worked on the railways as a porter and her mother as a maid to white families in the still-segregated city, and even before Wilma contracted polio she had been stricken with illnesses including measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and double pneumonia, the last two of which almost killed her.
She was brought up in a standard wood-frame house in the part of town designated for black residences. In her autobiography she remembers the warmth of her family more than the poverty but recalls her mother making dresses for the girls from flour sacks. Her parents’ responsibilities meant she was looked after as much by her brothers and sisters as her parents throughout her early life.
When polio struck her mother would not accept the doctor’s diagnosis. “My doctor told me I would never walk again,” she wrote. “My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.” But finding a hospital willing to treat a black child with polio was problematic. Meharry hospital, the black medical college of Fisk University in Nashville, was her only hope and, though it was 50 miles away from Clarksville, Blanche took Wilma on a twice-weekly bus ride for water and heat therapy for two years until she was able to walk with a steel brace on her withered left leg. She made that return journey more than 200 times, always at the back of the Greyhound, where African Americans were permitted to sit.
Intensive and extensive massage was prescribed and her mother was taught it by the medical staff. She, in turn, instructed Wilma’s brothers and sisters and, with more than 40 hands to help, Wilma, “the sickliest girl in Clarksville” as one newspaper put it when she began to make news as a junior-high basketball star, could walk without the brace after five years of four daily massages.
Two years later she stopped wearing the high-top shoe she had used to correct her gait and by the age of 12 she was “challenging every boy in our neighbourhood at running, jumping, everything”. At Burt high school she was accepted on to the basketball team only when her father insisted that Wilma and her sister Yolanda, an accomplished player, came as a package. After two years on the bench she had impressed her coach, CC Gray, enough to become a starter and he gave her the nickname Skeeter. “You’re little, you’re fast and you always get in my way,” he said. She became a prolific scorer, a state record 49 points in one game, and was made all-state.
When the track coach of Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University in north Nashville, Ed Temple, persuaded his friend Gray to establish a school athletics team, the Burt high coach turned to the basketball squad for his first recruits. In the school’s debut season Rudolph was unbeaten in 20 races at 50m, 75m, 100m, 200m and the 4x100m relay. Temple was understandably impressed and invited her to join the summer programme at his college and she trained regularly and raced with his Tigerbelles for two years. He took her to the Olympic trials in Seattle in 1956 where, alongside the Tennessee State undergraduates and alumni Mae Faggs, Willye White, Margaret Matthews and Isabelle Daniels, she won selection for Australia.
Faggs took Rudolph under her wing when nerves threatened to undermine her chances at the trials. “Skeeter, baby,” said Faggs, who had won gold in the relay team at the Helsinki Games, “you want to make the team. All you have to do to make the team is stick with me. Stick with me in the race, you make the team.”
In Melbourne she was eliminated in the second round of heats for the 200m but joined Daniels, Faggs and Matthews for the relay, running the third leg to win bronze behind Australia and Great Britain. The US quartet, or quartette as they were still quaintly called, equalled the existing world record of 44.9sec but the Australians, anchored by the 100m and 200m champion, Betty Cuthbert, the 18-year-old “Golden Girl”, powered home in 44.5.
Back at school Rudolph showed her classmates her medal. “They passed my bronze medal around so that everybody could touch, feel and see what an Olympic medal is like,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “When I got it back there were handprints all over it. I took it and I started shining it up. I discovered that bronze doesn’t shine. So I decided I’m going to try this one more time. I’m going to go for the gold.”
But in her senior year she became pregnant with her first daughter, Yolanda, named after her sister, and missed a season of competition. Yolanda’s father, Robert Eldridge, whom she married in 1963, two years after her father’s death, was forbidden from seeing either Wilma or his daughter by Ed Rudolph and the baby was looked after by her sister Yvonne in St Louis. When the baby was five months old Yvonne applied to adopt her but her parents intervened, drove all the way to Missouri and took her back to Clarksville, where Ed and Blanche became her primary carers. The arrangement was necessary to allow Wilma to attend Tennessee State and though Temple had stipulated that no mothers were allowed on his team he made an exception in her case. For Rudolph the course, majoring in elementary education, was as important as the opportunity to race and she later said that she had traded off her athletic ability to get what she really wanted, a teaching qualification.
Temple was a famously tough taskmaster and his rule that athletes would be punished by running a lap for each minute that they were late for practice taught Rudolph, who once had to do 30, that there would be no further indulgences. In such a talented Tigerbelles squad she shone only intermittently but as her body grew towards maturity – she weighed 89lb at 16 in Melbourne, 130lb four years later in Rome – her class began to tell, especially when a tonsillectomy in 1960 ended the stream of viruses that had weakened her throughout her freshman and sophomore years.
Temple, who was appointed to coach the US women’s track and field team for the 1960 Olympics, would pick his team after the trials held at Texan Christian University. At the national Amateur Athletic Union meet in Corpus Christie, Texas, a few weeks before the trials, Rudolph was shocked when a bus driver refused to take the integrated team to the stadium. When a replacement driver was eventually found and she got to the stadium she qualified for the trials in the three sprint events, running 22.9 for the 200m, a world record. In Fort Worth at TCU in August 1960 she won both the 100m and 200m and made the team for Rome.
They trained for three weeks at Kansas State University, flew to New York to be fitted for their Olympic uniforms and arrived in Rome with a fortnight to prepare before the opening ceremony. The day before her first 100m heat, Rudolph was jogging across the field in the middle of the practice track and stepped into a small hole. She fell to the grass, clutching her ankle, but after ice treatment and protective strapping she won her heat in 11.69, the quarter-final in 11.70 and the semi-final in a world record-equalling 11.30.
Her principal doubt before the final centred on her one weakness, one inevitable, she felt, given that she was 5ft 11in: “I always had the worst start in the history of any sprinter because of my size and I was the tallest sprinter that had come from the US. My first 30-40 yards I was never in the race. The farther I ran the faster I became and I could always accelerate at the end. That was the key.”
In his obituary of her in 1994, the Guardian’s athletics correspondent John Rodda wrote of her grace and poise: “The sensuality of her sprinting was in that stride. Those legs running seemed to induce hydraulic elevation.” Indeed in the final she simply strode away at the 30m mark, beating Britain’s Dorothy Hyman, the 19-year-old daughter of a Cudworth miner, into second place by a margin of three yards. Her victory was timed at 11.0 but the tailwind of 2.75 metres prevented her claiming her second world record.
The crowd in the Stadio Olimpico broke out into loud chants of “Vilma! Vilma!” as she completed her lap of honour. When she stepped on to the top of the podium to receive her first gold medal she carried a hat that the Observer’s Christopher Brasher described as “a marvellous confection of straw and ribbons which looked as if it had come straight off a Mississippi paddle steamer”. After her national anthem she waved her hat at the crowd and did it again after the 200m and relay victories.
She won the 200m by an even greater margin, so vast that the camera on the finishing line doesn’t catch any of her rivals in the frame. Starting in lane one, and having set a new Olympic record in her heat, she glided past the entire field in what was for her a slow 24.0. Look at both races without knowing her history and they look like cakewalks. Her battling qualities, however, were more evident in the relay.
They needed to be. The USA had set a world record in the heat and established a lead in the final by the time Rudolph was ready to leave her box but she fumbled the baton when Lucinda Williams passed it to her. For a second it seemed inevitable that she would drop it, but she managed to recover her grip and had work to do to regain the lead. Leaning forward and with her legs pumping fluidly she gained ground and lunged for the line. It took a photograph to determine that the US had won by 0.28 and the four Tigerbelles took the crowd’s applause.
Temple took his team on a European tour after the Games and Rudolph was feted wherever she went. The Italians called her La Gazzella Negra (the Black Gazelle) the French La Perle Noire (the Black Pearl) and the English, where she won the 100m dash at an invitational, the Tennessee Tornado.
Exhausted after the long sequence of engagements and by the clamour of crowds who greeted her from London to Berlin, Rudolph arrived home in Clarksville in October 1960. At her insistence, her homecoming parade and gala banquet were the first fully integrated municipal events in the city’s history.
Rudolph’s autobiography is almost a compendium of inspirational quotes in its own right. “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit,” she wrote. “We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within us all.” After her retirement in 1963 she dedicated herself to teaching and the Wilma Rudolph Foundation she endowed continues to help children overcome life’s obstacles. “Believe me, the reward is not so great without the struggle” was her constant message to them. And no Olympic champion has had to struggle more for her rewards.
50 stunning Olympic moments No 41: Emil Zatopek the triple-gold winner
Winning the 5,000m, the 10,000m and the marathon in 1952, Emil Zatopek became a sporting legend. His remarkable personality and a gruelling training regime led to his success
In 1952 Jim Peters, the British marathon champion, world record-holder and pre-race favourite, was on the track at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, warming up for perhaps the most important race of his life, when he was approached by a wiry, balding man whom he had never previously met. The man thrust out a hand. “Hello,” he said. “I am Zatopek.”
Peters knew exactly who he was. Emil Zatopek was one of the great names in distance running, having won a gold, a silver and a wife in London four years earlier and a 5,000m and 10,000m double already in Helsinki. He was also the man responsible for Peters’s decision to specialise in the marathon, having in the last Olympics so emphatically humiliated the Briton over 10,000m that he never ran the distance again. But the Czech had never run a marathon in his life and was considered a rank outsider, while Peters had shattered the world record just weeks earlier. Not in the mood for idle chatter, Peters returned the handshake but did not extend the conversation.
An hour or so later, Zatopek approached him again. This time Peters was halfway through the race and in the lead, when the Czech appeared on his shoulder. “Jim,” said Zatopek, “is this pace too fast?” “No,” Peters replied. “It isn’t fast enough.” The Englishman later explained that he was actually perfectly happy, and had “said it was too slow just to kid him” – but Zatopek took him at his word and started to run faster. Soon he disappeared from view, and the next time Peters saw him he was two minutes ahead of anyone else and the Briton had succumbed to cramp and was hitching a ride in a bus full of journalists. When Zatopek crossed the line, looking as the Guardian reported “like a man who has had a brisk country walk”, the crowd chanted his name and he was carried around the stadium upon the shoulders of Jamaica’s victorious 4x400m relay team, having secured a long-distance treble that no one before or since has even come close to and with it an indelible place in sporting legend.
As Peters had discovered, Zatopek was an excellent conversationalist. One British athlete complained that he “never shut up”. He spoke six languages, and made more friends actually during races than most athletes did when socialising. He entertained himself for much of the second half of that 1952 marathon by chatting with a car full of photographers, and afterwards declared that “the marathon is a very boring race”.
Had the intelligence with which he planned and executed his races and accumulated foreign languages been more evident at school, Zatopek’s life – and the history of distance running – might have been very different. His ambition to become a teacher was thwarted by his own academic failings, and instead he considered himself fortunate to get an apprenticeship at the Bata shoe factory in Zlin, which also allowed him to continue his education in night classes. It was 1936, and he was 14.
Every year on the second Sunday in May, a race was held through the streets of Zlin, which Zatopek studiously avoided. “After all there were boys from all over the republic there, and some of them were very talented,” he said. “It was no place for me.” But when he was 18 his tutor ordered him to take part. Zatopek claimed he was ill but the tutor called his bluff and sent him to a doctor. Given a clean bill of health, he had little choice but to line up for the event. “I was angry,” he later recalled. “At this age you feel you are an adult and shouldn’t be compelled to do such things. But I had to and I thought: ‘Right, I’ll show him.’”
Zatopek came second and was invited to join the local athletic club, where he developed his own training regime that combined sprints and longer runs, based loosely on what he had read about the great Finn Paavo Nurmi. “Running is easily understandable: you must be fast enough and you must have enough endurance,” he said. “So you run fast for speed and repeat it many times for endurance.”
At the end of the war he joined the Czech army, who gradually gave him the freedom to spend more time training. By 1948 an average day included five 200m sprints, 20 400m runs, then five more 200m sprints. When this was successful he pushed himself harder – he did 50 400m runs, then 60, then 70. He discovered that the harder he worked in training the faster he ran on the track, so in the buildup to one record attempt he pushed himself to 100 400m runs a day – 50 in the morning, and another 50 in the afternoon, adding up to nearly 25 miles a day, with a couple of miles of sprints thrown in for good measure. “It is at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys,” he said.
In 1946 he competed in his first international race, an inter-Allied meet in Berlin. Stuck in Prague with no obvious way to get there he eventually decided to cycle, a 220-mile journey, and still won when he got there. “I started too fast,” he later recalled, “and the big crowd, maybe there is 60,000, they started to laugh. They thought I am crazy. Who is he, they are saying? He is crazy. Crazy. But I won this event, and it was a great inspiration for me.”
Encouraged, he redoubled his efforts over the following winter. He would run at night, carrying a torch. He would strap weights to his feet and then go cycling. He would make a cut-price treadmill by putting a layer of wet clothes at the bottom of his bath and running on them, one part athlete, one part washing machine. He ran in heavy army boots and embraced rain, ice and snow. “There is a great advantage in training under unfavourable conditions,” he said. “It is better to train under bad conditions, for the difference is then a tremendous relief in a race.”
His target became 5,000m gold at the 1948 Olympics in London. On 29 May, two months and one day before the Olympic final, Zatopek ran for the first time over 10,000m and found he was quite good at that as well. By the time he reached London his personal best was only 1.6sec outside the world record, and he had decided to compete over both distances.
As was traditional, the 10,000m was held on the first day of the Games. Zatopek’s aim was to run each lap in 71sec, world record pace. His coach sat in the stands with a stopwatch; if his charge was on target he would hold a white shirt, if he fell behind, he would raise a red one. On the eighth lap for the first time Zatopek saw red, and sped up. But for a short battle with Finland’s Viljo Heino, nobody came close to him again and his margin of victory was 48 seconds. The Guardian described it as “one of the greatest races of a lifetime”, adding: “What made this race even more extraordinary was the fact that Zatopek was easily the ugliest runner in it.”
Zatopek’s awkward running style was to become legendary, being compared unfavourably even with that of the Scotsman Eric Liddell, who had won gold in Paris in 1924. The New York Herald Tribune described him “bobbing, weaving, staggering, gyrating, clutching his torso … he ran like a man with a noose around his neck. He seemed on the verge of strangulation.” The New York Times felt his action was that of “a harried soul on the rack of physical and spiritual torture”. Another journalist suggested he looked “like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt”. “Track and field is not ice skating,” Zatopek said. “It is not necessary to smile and make a wonderful impression on the judges.”
The 5,000m a few days later was uglier still. Having indulged in a totally unnecessary sprint finish with Sweden’s Eric Ahlden in his heat, Zatopek was perhaps weary even before it began. Run in pouring rain on a dirt track that had long since turned to mud, Zatopek’s famous endurance seemed to desert him. He all but dropped out of contention entirely, falling at one stage 100m behind the leader, Belgium’s Gaston Reiff. But then, over the final lap, Zatopek fought back, the crowd roaring him on. Gasping and flailing he closed the gap to 30m, then 20m, then 10. In the closing straight Reiff could hear his rival’s footsteps and feel his breath. Zatopek finished one pace and 0.2 seconds from gold. “It was,” we wrote, “a performance that would have made him one of the immortals of the track on its own.”
Also on the Czech team in London was the javelin thrower Dana Ingrova, who finished seventh. She happened to be precisely Zatopek’s age, both having been born on 19 September 1922. They knew each other already but the relationship blossomed in London, where they passed time playing a long-distance, high-stakes game of catch using her javelin. He bought two gold rings from a shop in Piccadilly Circus. “So, we were both born on the same day,” he told her. “What if, by chance, we were also to get married on the same day?”
They wed two months later. “I was surprised when I first saw how Topek lived for it, what he was ready to sacrifice,” his bride said, many years later. “But when I saw his successes, I realised: ‘Yes, that’s it.”’ The next four years were a story of almost unblemished success for both of them. Between 1949 and 1951 Zatopek competed in 69 long-distance races and won every one. But in 1951 he injured himself by skiing into a tree, and in the buildup to the 1952 Olympics he suffered from illness. Then, on the night before the 10,000m final, an Australian journalist barged into his bedroom at midnight and requested an interview. Zatopek spoke to him for 20 minutes, and then after discovering that the reporter had no hotel of his own, invited him to stay the night.
Still, he won the race easily enough and followed it this time with victory in the 5,000m – certainly the most dramatic of his Olympic victories, involving a stunning last-bend manoeuvre that took him past Chris Chataway, Alain Mimoun and Herbert Schade. Ten minutes after that race, Dana won gold in the javelin.
By then he was 30, and a new generation of athletes were coming through, and in the 1954 European Championships he was thrashed over 5,000m by a Russian named Vladimir Kuts. If that defeat hurt immediately, its full impact struck him only the following year, when a coaches’ conference was held in Prague and the Russians revealed that Kuts was running faster than Zatopek ever had, and with half as much training. “Oh, they were hard words for me,” the Czech recalled. “I couldn’t sleep without thinking why, why. I talked to Kuts. His training is developing in the opposite direction to mine. He runs only 20 times 400m but each year he runs faster. He develops quality instead of quantity.”
The truth was that Zatopek worked too hard for his own good, and he continued to do so. In the buildup to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 he started doing cross-country runs with his wife on his back, developed a hernia, needed an operation and very nearly missed the Games altogether. He recovered to finish sixth in the marathon, but soon after announced his retirement.
He remained active in the sport, partly because his apartment in Prague became an open house for the world’s best athletes, who would never miss the opportunity when in (what was) Czechoslovakia to visit the gregarious former Olympian. Gordon Pirie, the Yorkshireman who had modelled himself on Zatopek and raced against him in 1952, described it as “the merriest and gayest home I’ve been in”.
In 1968 the Australian athlete Ron Clarke came to visit. One of the world’s fastest distance runners for a decade, Clarke had suffered from a string of bad luck at major championships, and in that year’s Olympics in Mexico City had collapsed and very nearly died from altitude sickness. For all his lack of success Zatopek respected him as an athlete and liked him as a person, and the two spent a pleasurable day together. When he dropped Clarke off at the airport, Zatopek embraced him warmly and handed him a small parcel. “Not out of friendship but because you deserve it,” he said.
Clarke kept the package in his pocket until his plane was in the air. “I wondered whether I was smuggling something out for him. I retired to the privacy of the lavatory. When I unwrapped the box, there, inscribed with my name and that day’s date, was Emil’s Olympic 10,000-metre gold medal. I sat on that toilet seat and wept,” Clarke said.
A couple of months before Clarke’s visit, Soviet forces had brought a bloody end to the Prague Spring, a period when Czechoslovakia had flirted with democracy and westernisation, with Zatopek a vocal supporter. The following year Zatopek was punished for his political infidelity. Over years of loyal service, he had risen through the army ranks to become a colonel. Suddenly he was stripped of his rank, expelled from the army and thrown out of the Communist Party, who declared that Zatopek “lacked understanding of the fundamental problems of the development of our socialist society, and the need to defend it on the basis of the principles of Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism”. He was put to work in Prague’s sanitation department, collecting rubbish, and went on to spend seven years working in a uranium mine. Typically he saw the bright side of that experience as well. “The earth is nice not only from above, but from inside,” he said.
Eventually he returned to Prague and to his wife, with whom he lived in modest contentment until his death in 2000, aged 78. Nearly half a century after his greatest sporting achievement, leading figures from the world of sport filled his funeral at Prague’s National Theatre, testament to his eminence not just as an athlete but as a human. Certainly those who knew him best were sure that Zatopek’s greatness had not been confined to the track. As Ron Clarke, who of course had a unique reason to remember him fondly, put it: “There is not, and never was, a greater man than Emil Zatopek.”
This list came out pre-London 2012. The very best of sports writing and there’s FIFTY of them. I’ll pull out a few of my favourites, but I implore you, yes YOU, to read them all.
Bought to you courtesy of ‘Thom’s Thop Thip’
The following day came the long jump and Owens was unexpectedly in trouble. In the morning qualifying session he had two foul jumps, leaving him with one chance to record the necessary distance of 7.15m, usually comfortably within his range. Then Luz Long, Germany’s great hope, the embodiment of the Aryan ideal and Owens’s chief rival for gold, introduced himself to the American and recommended he set his runup marker back a foot or so in order to be sure of recording a legal jump. Owens did so and sailed into the final.
In the final Owens took an early lead with a jump of 7.74m but Long went ahead in the penultimate round, leaping out to 7.87m. Owens responded in sensational style with 7.94m in the fifth and 8.06m in the sixth and final round. Luz was the first to congratulate him and they took a lap of honour around the stadium together as the crowd rose to salute them both. “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” said Owens later. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”
Though I’m not a fan of the whole singing-the-anthem-before-a-game patriotic fuckfest the US seems to adore, it can throw up nice moments like this…