Back during the 1960s, Ronald Clarke, was one of the greatest athletes on the planet. Although little-known now, back then Clarke smashed 17 world records as a middle and long distance runner. Unfortunately, back home in Australia, despite all the victories, Clarke was known as “the bloke who choked” because he was never able to win Olympic gold.
Clarke missed his final chance at gold in the Summer games of 1968 in Mexico City when he was knocked out of 10,000 m by altitude sickness. He was devastated. Knowing he would be slammed by the Australian press when he returned to Melbourne, Clark decided to make a surprise stop in Prague to see a man named Emil Zatopek.
Zatopek, now retired, had also been a runner. The legendary Czech had built a similar resume to that of Clarke, only a decade earlier.
Zatopek showed up at the 1952 Olympics to run both the 5000 and 10,000 meters. He won gold medals in both races by setting world records. At the last minute Zatopek decided to enter the Olympic marathon, thinking with two gold medals already secured he had nothing to lose. Emil had never run a marathon in his life.
For the first half of the race, running a frenetic pace, Zatopek battled current world record holder, Englishman Jim Peters. At the halfway point, running stride for stride with Peters, Zatopek turned to Peters and said, “This is my first marathon, do you think we are running too fast?” Peters said, “No, we are going to slow!”, thinking he could break the spirit of the Czech. Zatopek said, “Okay. Thanks!”, and then proceeded to run off and leave the Englishman. Zatopek broke the world record and won his third gold medal becoming the only person to ever win the three distances in the same Olympiad.
Back to Clarke. When he showed up to see Zatopek the two had a cordial visit. When it was time to leave, Clarke noticed Zatopek smuggling a small package into his suitcase. He assumed it contained some kind of message that Zatopek was trying to get to the outside world. The two great champions shared a warm embrace and Zatopek said, “Because you deserve it.” Clarke assumed Zatopek was referring to the hug. He promptly left and headed for the airport.
Once on the plane, Clarke opened the small package only to find Zatopek’s 10,000 m gold medal from the 1952 games. “Because you deserve it,” had been his words. The gift was priceless.
Emil Zatopek gave away his gold medal to the very man who had removed his name from the record books. Yes, it was Ronald Clarke who had broken Zatopek’s 10,000 m world record during a smaller race in 1965.
Emil Zatopek was once quoted as saying, "Great is the victory, but the friendship is all the greater." His gift to Clarke was evidence that these were not merely words. By letting go of a shiny piece of metal attached to a ribbon, Emil Zatopek proved that he was a man of integrity.
Clarke was forever marked by the gift. Overcome with emotion he would later comment, “There is not, and never was, a greater man than Emil Zatopek.”
Who have you marked lately? Is there someone who can testify to your integrity? Has your generosity made a difference in someone’s life? In the Bible, Proverbs 3:27 says, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act.”
Find someone to bless this week. Find someone who needs some encouragement. Because in the end, your victories will not matter nearly as much as the friendships you make along the way. An ordinary man named Emil once lived by that principle and it helped him to maximize his influence. The same can be true for you today.