But if distance runners know only one story about athletes in their sport, I’d like it to be the story of a runner who was famous for being second.
I learned about Alain Mimoun from a segment of a documentary about the Olympics by Bud Greenspan. The story focuses on the French Algerian’s ill-fortune. In Olympic and European championship races in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in the mid fifties, Mimoun finished second to the greatest runner of the age, Emile Zatopek, five times.
Everyone has heard of Zatopek. Well, no, not really—but more people have heard of Zatopek than Mimoun. Zatopek was a Czech who owned the track for almost ten years, setting world records and proving unbeatable in big races. In contrast, Mimoun was “Zatopek’s shadow,” a short and swarthy foil to the Czech’s golden, blue-eyed visage.
Yet, though I admire Zatopek, I admire Mimoun just as much.
Greenspan’s documentary highlights Mimoun’s warm feelings for Emile. Mimoun tells stories about their being friends off the track and how Zatopek once introduced him to “a nice Czech girl.” But the most astounding element of the interview is Mimoun’s grace and generosity toward someone he must have seen as better. Even losing to Zatopek the fifth time, Mimoun says, “I was not angry because I believe in fate, and I said, if I do not win, that is my destiny.”
In his last Olympics, at Melbourne in 1956 when Mimoun was 35, he didn’t even do as well as second place. He finished 11th in the 10,000 meters. It seemed his career would end without a gold. However, Zatopek encouraged his friend to enter the marathon, a distance Mimoun had never attempted. Zatopek was already registered for the race, but Mimoun had to beg his team’s coach. The coach agreed but thought it silly. The press wrote Mimoun off as too old.
The day was very hot, Mimoun was wearing number 13, and that morning, back in Algeria, Mimoun’s daughter had been born. He took these developments as signs. When he stepped to the line, he must have realized he was running out of chances, and from the early stages of the race, he pushed to the front of the pack. Accustomed to the heat from training in Africa, Mimoun skipped water stations and soon built a formidable lead. Nonethess, with Zatopek in the race, Mimoun entered Olympic stadium looking around. He peered back and saw…no one. He won. Zatopek was sixth.
As many times as I’ve seen this film, my eyes still well when Mimoun breaks the tape. The narrator translates Mimoun’s excited French, “I was always second. Now I was no longer the shadow. I was the sun.” Yet Mimoun’s victory—his being at last better than Zatopek—is not the only moving aspect of the story. I don’t even see his triumph as the most moving aspect. Mimoun won plenty of races. He was the international cross country champion four times and second twice more. Though his marathon victory is a fantasy ending, his story isn’t about who’s better. The people inside the athletes—the friends Mimoun and Zatopek—move me, not who performed better on which day.
After he won the race, Mimoun remained in Olympic stadium to cheer Zatopek across the line and then approached him to share his victory. In the film, Mimoun mimes how Zatopek lifted his exhausted form from the infield, kissed him on both cheeks, stood at attention, and saluted. “I am happy for you my friend,” Zatopek said.
“For me,” Mimoun tells the camera, “This is worth all the gold in the world. Without Zatopek, it would have meant nothing. With him, magnificent.”
I am in awe of the skills of current atheletes. However, I can’t help thinking about Mimoun. Sometimes our interest in who is the greatest seems misplaced… unless you shift the meaning of “greatest” to include glory that transcends winning.