Alain Mimoun, a Top Runner, Dies at 92
Published: June 30, 2013
Alain Mimoun was a virtual unknown in international track and field when he won a silver medal for France in the 10,000-meter race at the 1948 London Olympics. The Algerian-born Mimoun soon became one of the world’s most brilliant distance runners.
But gold eluded him. He was the runner-up twice at the European championships in 1950 and twice more at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia, perhaps the greatest distance runner ever, won all five of those races, leaving Mimoun tagged as his “shadow.”
Mimoun finally ran the race of his life at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. At 35, he won the first marathon he ever entered. Zatopek, the winner of the 1952 Olympic marathon, was far back, in sixth place.
When Mimoun died on Thursday at 92 in Champigny-sur-Marne, a suburb of Paris, he was hailed for the grandeur of his achievements and for his grit.
His death was announced by France’s athletics federation.
“He left a deep mark on the history of French sports,” said France’s president, François Hollande.
But Mimoun, whose victory proved a precursor to the arrival of great international runners from Africa, was remembered as well for embodying the amateur ideal. The story of the respect he showed for a rival who had become his friend, and whom he had ultimately vanquished, was told once more.
On Dec. 1, 1956, a crowd of more than 100,000 cheered the 5-foot-7 Mimoun, a mustachioed man with a blue jersey bearing the French tricolor and the number 13, as he ran a seemingly effortless final marathon lap at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on a day when the temperatures reached about 100 degrees. Mimoun had looked back for a glimpse of Zatopek or anyone else challenging him in his final strides, but there was no one in sight.
After crossing the finish line, Mimoun lingered among the officials.
“I was sure Emil was there at my heels,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1972. “I was hoping he would be second. I was waiting for him. Then I thought, well, he will be third. It will be nice to stand on the podium with him again. But Emil came in sixth, oh, very tired. He seemed in a trance, staring straight ahead. He said nothing. I said: ‘Emil, why don’t you congratulate me? I am an Olympic champion. It was I who won.’ ”
Mimoun continued: “Emil turned and looked at me, as if he were waking from a dream. Then he snapped to attention. Emil took off his cap, that white painting cap he wore so much, and he saluted me. Then he embraced me.”
“For me, that was better than the medal,” Mimoun said.
Ali Mimoun Ould Kacha was born on Jan. 1, 1921, in Telagh, in northwest Algeria, the eldest of seven children in a farming family. He began running as a teenager, then joined the French Army during World War II and was wounded in the foot at Monte Cassino in the Italian campaign.
He faced possible amputation, but the wound healed and he moved to Paris after the war. He joined an athletic club and took the French name Alain. When he showed promise as a runner, he was named to the French Olympic team for the 1948 London Games.
Zatopek beat Mimoun by nearly a lap in the 10,000-meter run in London. They became friends, and Zatopek invited Mimoun to visit Prague as his guest. Their rivalry resumed at the 1950 European championships in Brussels, where Zatopek and Mimoun finished 1-2 in the 10,000 and the 5,000. Zatopek bested Mimoun again in the 10,000 and in the 5,000 at the Helsinki Olympics.
Mimoun hoped his luck would change in a marathon, and he dutifully prepared for Melbourne over a two-year period. When the French team arrived there, he shunned distractions.
“He woke me at 5:30 in the morning to go run, and in the evening, he made me go to bed at 8:30,” his fellow Olympic runner Michel Jazy told the French commercial radio network RTL on Friday. “Even though we were at the Olympics, I couldn’t go to any of the parties.”
But there were other matters on Mimoun’s mind. His wife had remained in France expecting their first child. Word came a day before the marathon that she had given birth to a daughter. The Mimouns named her Olympe.
Mimoun took the lead about halfway through the marathon and shunned the cups of water on tables lining the course as he pulled away. He lost nine pounds, but he finished in 2 hours 25 minutes, about a minute and a half ahead of the runner-up, Franjo Mihalic of Yugoslavia. Zatopek, who had undergone hernia surgery six weeks earlier, finished 4:34 behind Mimoun.
Mimoun never raced against Zatopek again, but his career embraced a host of superlatives beyond that rivalry. He won the International Cross-Country championship four times from 1949 to 1956. (Zatopek did not compete in those events.) He won six French marathon championships, the last when he was 45, along with many other French national running titles. He made his last Olympic appearance at Rome in 1960, finishing 34th in the marathon.
He worked as a physical education instructor and ran recreationally into his 90s. Many French streets and municipal running tracks bear his name.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
When Zatopek died in November 2000 at 78, Mimoun was deeply affected.
“I haven’t lost an opponent,” a Czech newspaper quoted him as saying. “I’ve lost a brother.”
Alain Mimoun (January 1, 1921 – June 27, 2013) was a French runner and Olympic marathon champion.
Born in the arrondissement of Maïder in the town of Telagh, then in French Algeria (his birth name was Ali Mimoun Ould Kacha), Mimoun lost several years of competition to World War II. After the war (in which he was a combatant), he was French champion in the 5000 meters and 10000 meters.
Mimoun's path to an Olympic gold medal was blocked in both 1948 and 1952 by Czech runner Emil Zatopek. Mimoun won silver medals in the 10000 meters in 1948 and 1952 as well as another silver medal in the 5000 meters in 1952. His second place finishes behind Zatopek gave him the nickname "Zatopek's Shadow." He finally won a gold medal in the marathon at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Zatopek finished sixth.
Mimoun made the French team for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. He won his final national championship in 1966, twenty years after his debut.
Mimoun died at age 92 on June 27, 2013. The athletics stadium in Bugeat, France is named in Mimoun's honor.