World Athletics is deeply saddened to hear that 1952 Olympic javelin champion and former world record-holder Dana Zatopkova died on Friday (13) at the age of 97.
Born in the town of Frystat in 1922, Dana Ingrova, as she was then known, loved all sports. She pursued athletics and handball beyond her teenage years and started throwing the javelin in 1946. She also continued playing handball and went on to win the national title in that sport as part of the Slovak Slavia team.
Just two years after taking up the javelin, she became the first Czech woman to throw beyond 40 metres, earning selection for the 1948 Olympic Games in the process. At that same competition, national athletics star Emil Zatopek went over to congratulate her on her record-breaking performance. It was during this first conversation between the pair that they discovered they were both born on the same day – 19 September 1922.
More than that, though, they struck up a relationship which blossomed throughout that year. They went on to travel to the Olympic Games as a couple. It was there, with Emil having won the 10,000m and Dana having placed seventh in the javelin, that the couple got engaged. Emil bought two rings at London’s Piccadilly Circus and they wed later that year.
“The London experience influenced my whole life,” Zatopkova told Radio Prague International. “It was like a dream come true; it was a fairy tale world. But what made an even bigger impression was the spirit of the Olympics, which was palpable. It was in London that I started to take my sporting career seriously, that I developed a strong admiration for the Olympics idea and intensely wanted to be part of it.”
Four years later, at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, the pair made sporting history.
On 24 July, and having already won the 10,000m four days prior, Zatopek lined up for the 5000m. While his race was happening, Zatopkova was in the changing rooms, waiting for her event to start. She then heard a huge cheer from the crowd and so dashed out on to the track to learn that Zatopek had won the race.
As Zatopek was on his way off the track and Zatopkova was heading out for the javelin final, they passed one another. Zatopek showed his wife the gold medal, then Zatopkova grabbed it and put it in her bag. “It’s for good luck,” she said.
Moments later, while Zatopek was in the changing rooms, the team coach dashed in to give him an update on his wife’s competition. “She has thrown beyond 50 metres in the first round and is in first place!” the coach said.
Zatopkova’s opening effort of 50.47m, an Olympic record, stood up as the best mark of the day and she became the first Czech woman to win an Olympic gold medal in athletics.
Later, when she met up with her husband, Zatopek quipped that Zatopkova only won because she was excited by his 5000m victory. “Oh yeah?” she retorted. “Go and excite some other girl if you’re so smart. See if she’ll throw a javelin 50 metres for you!”
Their performances in London cemented their status as the golden couple of the sport. They achieved another double gold at the 1954 European Championships in Bern with Zatopkova winning the javelin with 52.91m and Zatopek taking the 10,000m title in 28:58.0, both of them setting championship records.
While injury forced Zatopek to retire in 1957, Zatopkova’s career continued to flourish and she set a world record of 55.73m in Prague in 1958. As was the case at the 1952 Olympics, Zatopkova’s big throw came in the opening round.
Two months later, and with Australia’s Anna Pazera having broken the world record with 57.40m, Zatopkova successfully defended her European title and improved her own championship record to 56.02m, a European record. Later that year, Zatopkova extended her own European record to 56.67m, a mark that remained her lifetime best.
In 1960, at the age of 37, Zatopkova qualified for her fourth Olympic Games. Soviet thrower Elvira Ozolina, who had twice broken the world record earlier that season, launched her spear out to an Olympic record of 55.98m in the opening round. Zatopkova responded with 53.78m in round three to take the silver medal.
She continued competing for another year and was ranked third in the world in 1961 before retiring from competitive athletics in 1962. She continued to be involved in the sport, working as a coach and sitting on the IAAF Women’s Committee from 1960-1972.
After her husband died in 2000, Zatopkova remained an avid follower of the sport and regularly attended social gatherings and events.
“Emil and I had many wonderful years,” she said a few years ago. “We had a lot of fun together and I appreciate the fact that we continued to make each other laugh. I always like to remember that.”
Compatriots Jan Zelezny and Babora Spotakova, both of whom won Olympic gold medals and set world records in the javelin, have fond memories of Zatopkova.
“I remember getting my first proper javelin from her,” Zelezny told Czech news website iRozhlas. “Even at a later age, she was very interested in sports. She watched all the major competitions and had an incredible memory. She was a sports encyclopaedia.”
“Every meeting with her was always very pleasant,” added Spotakova, who joined Zatopkova for her 97th birthday last year. “She was very interested in what is happening at the moment, she knew everything about us – where and when we were at competitions. She was also interested in young athletes, especially javelin throwers. Dana was an amazing woman.”