When I invited Sir Alex Ferguson to name his fantasy dinner party comprising four "guests" alive or dead, he rattled off the first three names without a pause before seeking a 24-hour delay while he gave due thought to the identity of his fourth companion. "Muhammad Ali. The greatest sportsman of all time, no question. I met him only once - by which time he was suffering badly from Parkinson's - but it was a great thrill nonetheless. He had an aura about him you could almost touch. Jock Stein, who was so far ahead of his time it wasn't true. And my idol, Denis Law. Now let me sleep on it..."
Not that the man enjoyed much sleep. "I was awake most of the night thinking about this. Maybe it was the era I was born in but I've always admired boxers - hard, hard fighting men who came out of the ghettos. "But the man I'm going to go for, because he shaped almost every part of athletics training, is Emil Zatopek with his four Olympic gold medals. The interval training that he initiated way back in the Fifties influenced everyone, from myself to Martin Pipe, the National Hunt trainer.
So it would be fascinating to sit down with the guy and find out when and why he came up with an idea that didn't just transform athletics but every other sport as well. I was very sad when I heard he'd died a number of years back..." Although his times look antediluvian compared to the world records of today, there can be no doubting the true greatness of Zatopek, whose famously brutal training resulted in his achieving the seemingly impossible 55 years ago on this day, when he broke the world 10,000 metres record just two days after setting a new world 5,000m mark.
His controversial 'Interval training' method comprised running 20 x 200m, 40 x 400m, and 20 x 200m on a daily basis in all weathers often wearing climbing boots instead of spikes. "At first everyone said, 'Emil, you are a fool!' But when I first won the European Championship, they said: 'Emil, you are a genius'!" Winner of the 5,000, 10,000 metres and marathon (the first time he had run the distance in competition) at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Zatopek explained the pained grimace he adopted throughout races of any distance thus: "I am not talented enough to run with a smile on my face..."
Despite his seemingly anguished expression, Zatopek simply loved to run. "For me, a day without a visit to the track is like a day without sunshine, or a good meal without a fine wine. It's at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys. Essentially, we distinguish ourselves from the rest. If you want to win something, run the 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon."
Until his death in 2002, Zatopek maintained a friendship with Ron Clarke, the Australian whom the Czech regarded as one of athletics' ultimate champions by virtue of his 18 long-distance world records despite his failure to win a single gold at the 1964 and '68 Olympics. The pair were frequent visitors to one another's homes and on one occasion Clarke was taking his leave when Zatopek handed him a small wrapped box. "Do not open it until you are on the plane back to Australia," his friend said.
Following his instructions, Clarke waited until he was in the air when, on opening the package, discovered an Olympic medal. "My dear Ron," read the enclosed card, "I have won four gold medals, it is only right that you should have one of them. Your friend, Emil..." Tough on the track, a softie in life. email@example.com