Pyotr Bolotnikov was a worthy successor to his countryman Vladimir Kuts. This tough Russian competitor set two WRs for 10,000 and won Olympic and European gold medals. Bolotnikov’s tough childhood formed his personality. He lost his mother at 4, and then lived with his stepmother in the Urals while his father and his brothers fought in World War 2. After his father and a brother were killed in action, Bolotnikov left his stepmother and went to live alone in the family house in Krasnaya Mordovski. The house had been boarded up, but Bolotnikov opened it up and set about making a living. In 1944 he enrolled in factory training and eventually qualified as an electrician.
Working in Moscow, he did ice skating and rode his bike 15K to work every day. When drafted into the army, he began to take an interest in running because of the example of Zatopek. Already a very fit man, Bolotnikov soon showed promise in distance running. In 1952 he placed third in the Armed Forces 10,000. When he was transferred to Moscow at the end of 1953, he immediately signed up with the Spartak Club and with the respected coach Stepanov. Gradually developed by Stepanov, Bolotnikov reached 10,000 world class in 1956 with a PB of 29:27.0. He finished second to Kuts in the USSR 10,000 championships and then second to Iharos when the Hungarian set his 10,000 WR. Later, he qualified for the Melbourne Olympics, finishing 16th in the 10,000 and 9th in the 5,000 in 14:22.
|Bolotnikov's compactness and upper-body strength are evident here.|
After the Olympics, there was another coaching change: he moved to Kuts’s coach Gregoriy Nikiforov. Zatopek’s interval training theories were followed—but with repetitions from 200 to 2,000. Under Nikiforov’s coaching, Bolotnikov improved his PBs in 1957 to 13:54 (fifth in the world) and 29:09.8 (second in the world). And he startled everyone by beating Vladimir Kuts in the National 10,000 with a final sprint. It looked like the two Russians would dominate the 1958 Euros, but neither participated. The explanation given was “health reasons.” Bolotnikov was nevertheless prominent again in the 1958 world rankings with 13:58.8 (9th) and 29:04.4 (6th).
Nikiforov’s coaching continued to produce results. Compared to Kuts, Bolotnikov was now running a little less distance in training, but he was running his intervals faster. In 1959 he had the two fastest times over 10,000 with 29:03 and 29:06.8. He was again ranked 9th for 5,000 with 13:52.8. For three years he had now been near the top of world rankings, but he still hadn’t made an impact internationally. All that was to change the next year with an Olympic gold and a 10,000 WR.
With the top 5,000 time (13:38.1) and the top three 10,000 times (28:18.8 WR, 28:32.2, 28:32.4), Bolotnikov was clearly the top distance track runner of 1960. He peaked perfectly in this important Olympic year, improving 40 seconds in the 10,000 and 14 seconds in the 5,000. Coming into the Olympics with a 28:58 seasonal best, he performed superbly in the 10,000 final. Everyone agreed that he controlled the race throughout, and his last lap of 57.4 gave him a comfortable margin at the tape. His time of 28:32.2 was less than two seconds off Kuts’s WR.
The Times athletics correspondent said Bolotnikov “ran a race of courage, confidence and intelligence.” (Sept. 9, 1960, p.16). He made sure the pace was fast by leading for the first 2K (2:48, 5:37). Only the Moroccan Rhadi stayed with him. Bolotnikov maintained the pace through 3,000 (8:29) but then slowed to pass 4,000 in 11:24. This slowing allowed the pack to join him. At halfway (14:22.2) the order was Iharos,, Rhadi, Power, Bolotnikov, Merriman, Grodotzki. Then, as the pace was slowing, Bolotnikov’s team-mate Desiatchikov took over the lead, passing 6,000 in 17:18 in front of Bolotnikov and Rhadi.
There was a big break at 20 laps when Power led Bolotnikov, Grodotski and Desiatchikov to a 25-meter lead over the field. Then Grodotzki took over the lead through the next two laps. Bolotnikov, who hadn’t led in the second half of the race, waited until just before the bell to make his effort. He was 10 meters ahead on the back straight and still going away. At the tape he had a five-second margin, having run the last 1,000 in 2:38.6. Bolotnikov’s was an impressive performance, although it didn’t capture the public’s imagination in the way Kuts’s 1956 10,000 victory had.
He showed good post-Olympic form with a 13:38.1 5,000, only 3 seconds slower than Kuts’s WR. Then he broke Kuts’s 10,000 WR of 28:30 with a 28:18.8 clocking. He was close to Kuts’s intermediate times until 6K, when Kuts had slowed. By 7K, Bolotnikov was 7 seconds ahead of WR schedule. He stayed that much ahead till the last K, when he ran a 2:44, as compared to Kuts’s 2:48.
|Bolotnikov on his way to Olympic victory in Rome.Grodotski and Power try to stay with him.|
After a quieter year in 1961 (13:53 and 29:04), he was back in top form in 1962 for the Euros. A solid 10,000 victory in the USA-USSR meet in July was a good warm-up. Then he established a psychological advantage ten days before the meet with a new 10,000 WR of 28:18.2. He looked a good bet to win both distance races. In the 10,000 he took the lead as he had done in the Olympic final. He was out on his own for a short while, but then Janke of Germany caught up with him after 1K. Janke dogged Bolotnikov for almost the rest of the race, and with three laps to go he took the lead. Bolotnikov matched him but only overtook Janke in the last 100 for the gold in a slowish 28:54.
Janke had shown that Bolotnikov was not as dominant as he was in 1960, and his vulnerability was evident in the 5,000. The 5,000 heats were held only 24 hours after the 10,000, and a tired Bolotnikov had to run hard to qualify in a tough heat with 13:53.4. In the final he nevertheless he led through 400 in 62.8 and 1,000 in 2:48. Maintaining this pace, he reached 2,000 in 5:37.5 (2:49.5) and then slowed. At 3,000 he still led in 8:38.2 (2:59.3). Then on the ninth lap Jurek of Czechoslovakia took the lead and upped the tempo to a 2:38.2 kilometer, which left Bolotnikov back in the pack. Then early in the penultimate lap, Britain’s Tulloh surprised the whole field with a decisive break. While Tulloh held his lead to the tape, Bolotnikov dug down and managed to move up to finish third, just two seconds behind Tulloh. So Bolotnikov came away from his only European championship with a gold and a bronze medal.
He continued competing in 1963, posting a reasonable 29:16.4 for 10,000. The Tokyo Olympics were to be his last hurrah. And his chances looked good when he posted 13:38.6 for 5,000 and 28:39 for 10,000. Then just ten days before the Games he injured himself. He still ran the 10,000 but was nowhere near his top form, finishing 25th in 30:52.8. It was a disappointing end to a great career.
Often called a compact runner, Bolotnikov had an unusually strong upper body for a distance runner. His running style was efficient and controlled—unlike the writhing style of his predecessor Vladimir Kuts. His stylish last lap in the Rome 10,000 is an enduring memory.