I don't follow athletics but I saw today that the Australian distance runner Ron Clarke has died. The name actually meant something to me. I was surprised to learn that despite breaking many world records he never won a gold medal. There is this great story though (some of the detail here may be incorrect but the basics are apparently right).
In June 1966, Clarke was invited to an athletic meeting in Prague by Emil Zatopek, the great Czech distance runner of the 1950s. Zatopek was to distance runners what Sir Edmund Hillary was to mountaineering - the first man through the barriers for all the others to follow - and he had long been an admirer of Clarke's style. After the meeting, the four-time Olympic gold medallist and national hero, guided the young Australian around Prague for the day, showing him fine hospitality throughout, talking about this and that, and the art of running in particular. That afternoon, he took Clarke to the airport, took him past the guards, right up the steps of the plane, before warmly shaking his hand and pressing a tiny package into his palm and whispering a few words. What ...?
Zatopek was gone. The plane door closed on him and Clarke was more than passing nervous. What on earth had Zatopek just given him? Was it drugs? Was it contraband? Was it some sort of message or something he had to take to the free world? Microfilm maybe? Clarke sat in his seat, perspiring a little. He determined that under no circumstances would he open the small package until he was back on the ground in London, at least on friendly, familiar territory, where he would be able to cope with whatever it was. But somewhere over the English Channel he could resist no longer. Looking surreptitiously over his left and right shoulder to see no one was watching, he fished the package out of his pocket and opened the little box inside. It gleamed back at him. It was an Olympic gold medal, the very same that Zatopek had won in the 10,000m at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. It was even newly inscribed, To Ron Clarke, July 19, 1966, with Zatopek's final words on the plane steps coming to him, "Not out of friendship, but because you deserve it".
Great story, eh?