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The Numbers Line Up (Zatopek:10)

The Emil Zatopek 10,000 metres is never short of historical parallels, but the 2016 edition of Australia’s most enduring distance classic throws up some meaningful numbers indeed.

The 56th running of the Zatopek coincides with a significant anniversary of the ’56 Olympic Games. Race day – 8 December – is precisely 60 years since the Closing Ceremony of the Melbourne Olympic Games.

The Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games was the only time Emil Zatopek competed in Australia. Four years after his unprecedented, and unrepeated, 5000-10,000-marathon Olympic distance treble in Helsinki, Zatopek ran the marathon only.

His preparation restricted by a hernia operation some two months previously, Zatopek finished sixth in the race won by Alain Mimoun. But if Zatopek’s endurance was lacking, his ability to make the enduring gesture was undiminished –  his come-to-attention salute to Mimoun, who had finished second to him so many times previously, and their embrace was one of the moments of the Games.

Those Games left the Olympic movement with a legacy: the mingling of athletes at the Closing Cermeony, which was suggested by a young Chinese-Australian. Distance running’s legacy was the Zatopek 10,000 metres.

The Emil Zatopek 10,000 metres race is one of the longest, continually run, track distance races in the world.

Inaugurated in 1961 as the 10,000 metres championship of the Victorian Marathon Club, ‘the Zatopek’ had its 50th running in 2010 and is now well on the way to 60, and beyond.

Though the Zatopek now usually carries the national title and the status of selection trial for major championships, for most of its history the only tangible reward to the Zatopek winner was a rudimentary trophy styled from a red-gum railway sleeper. Geoff Warren, one of the early VMC members, designed it; Les Perry, a foundation member, described it as “solid, tough and durable, as appropriate to such an event, and to perpetuate the name and contribution to world and Olympic sport by this greatest of all distance runners.”

Percy Cerutty, Les Perry, Bert Gardiner, Gordon Stanley, Bob Prentice, Fred Lester – the men who founded the VMC were men of stubborn endurance. The Zatopek:10, the race they named in honour of their hero, has proven to be just as tough and resilient.

For the 50th anniversary, I penned a tribute for Athletics Victoria which was published in the Sunday Age as one of its ‘High Five’ column. The article picked out five major themes in Zatopek history – The best: from Ron Clarke’s world record in 1963 on, the race has showcased the best of Australian distance running; Nations: champions from five different nations have won the race; Ron Clarke: a world record, a record five victories; Mr Zatopek: saluting Steve Moneghetti’s 20-plus-years involvement; and The man himself: Zatopek’s visit to Melbourne for the 1985 race.

Those themes are still just as apt in 2016. Staying on point, here are some of the highlights in the five years since.

Joyce Chepkirui, who has gone on to become one of Kenya’s best distance runners, broke Susie Power’s race record in winning he 2011 women’s race, while the classy Kenyan trio of Emmanuel Bett, Bitan Karoki and 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Micah Kogo went 1-2-3 in the men’s race, Bett and Karoki running the eight and tenth-fastest times respectively in race history.

Neely Spence won the 2012 women’s race, joining Galen Rupp as the only US Zatopek champions. In 2013, Sam Chelanga became the 10th-fastest man in Zatopek history when he defeated Dave McNeill.

Brett Robinson and Veronica Wanjiru triumphed in 2014 and last year Dave McNeill and Eloise Wellings clinched Rio Olympic selection with Zatopek victories. Both went on to perform with distinction at the Games.

Whether any of that changes what I wrote in 2011, I will leave for the reader to judge.

1 The five best performances

Clarke’s world record unquestionably remains number one.

Clarke told few people of his world record ambition. Even some of his training mates didn’t know. He went through six miles in 27 minutes 16.8, 26 seconds faster than the previous world record, then raced onto the finish in 28:15.6, 2.6 seconds under the 10,000 world record.

Susie Power produced the next-best performance in world-ranking terms. Her winning time in 2001 was the fourth-fastest in the world that year. The gifted Power never quite fulfilled her potential at a major championship, but in this marvellous run she recorded 31:26.34 to beat Kerryn McCann and three-time Zatopek winner Natalie Harvey by almost two minutes.

Kenya’s Luke Kipkosgei put himself in the world top 10 in each of his 1997 and 1998 wins, the latter in a race record 27:22.54.

Carolyn Schuwalow broke the Australian record in 1991 and led Jenny Lund, Susan Hobson and Krishna Stanton to second, third and fifth on the Australian all-time list in what is still regarded as one of the best Zatopek races ever.

Finally, Gerard Barrett, another athlete who, like Power, never quite achieved his best on a world or Olympic stage, became the first Australian to break 28 minutes in Australia in winning the 1978 race.

 

2 The five nations

Gabriel Kamau, who out-sprinted Rob de Castella to win in 1983, was the first Kenyan athlete to win the race. Several Kenyan men and women have followed.

Rex Wilson was the first New Zealand winner in 1985, while Galen Rupp of the USA won the 2006 race in pouring rain.

Sonia O’Sullivan, then representing Ireland, won the 2001 women’s race in sweltering conditions to take the number of different nations to have provided a winner to five.

All of them, except Ireland, have provided both a male and female Zatopek winner.

 

3 The Ron Clarke Five

Clarke won the first three Zatopeks in 1961, 1962 and 1963, then won again in 1968 and 1969.

Eloise Wellings can join Steve Moneghetti and Luke Kipkosgei as four-time champions with a win in 2016. On three wins are Andrew Lloyd, Natalie Harvey and Joan Logan (two as fastest woman before there was a stand-alone women’s race). Dave McNeill can join them this year.

 

4 Steve Moneghetti: ‘Mr Zatopek’

‘Mr Zatopek:10’ has run (at least) 20 Zatopeks. His four wins on the trot were heroic. His start was inauspicious – fifteenth in B-grade. Not until 1985 was he top three.

From there, however, Moneghetti won four, finished second once and third five times before finishing fourth in his final appearance in 2005.

 

5 The real Mr Zatopek’s visit

The great man himself came to Australia for the 1985 Zatopek.

Zatopek didn’t just show up on the big night. He went to the lower-grade races – he didn’t just watch, he barracked and helped officiate too. He presented the trophies for the women’s race – run on a different night in those days – and was guest of honour at the main race. He had a word for each of the hundreds who met him.

– Len Johnson