Vera Caslavska, Olympic gymnast and national heroine to Czechs, dies at 74
Vera Caslavska, a Czech gymnast who catapulted to global attention not only for her gold medal wins at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, but also for her highly visible protest against Soviet occupation of her country during the awards ceremony, died Aug. 30. She was 74.
The Czech Olympic Committee, which described her as “the most successful Czech Olympian of all time,” announced her death on its website. The Associated Press reported that she died in Prague after undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Described at the time as the “glamour girl of the 1968 Olympics,” 26-year-old Ms. Caslavska captured the world’s affection with her seemingly weightless grace in competition.
But it was her defiant act of patriotism atop the Olympic podium, which she shared in a tie with the Soviet gymnast Larisa Petrik for the floor exercise event, that perhaps most cheered her compatriots and their allies on either side of the Iron Curtain.
In August 1968, two months before the Games began, Soviet-led forces invaded Czechoslovakia on Leonid Brezhnev’s orders to end the movement toward liberalization known as the Prague Spring. Ms. Caslavska — who had collected three gold medals, including the all-around, at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo — had previously joined other Czech dissidents in signing the “Two Thousand Words” calling for progress toward democracy.
Fearing arrest by the Soviets, she went into hiding in the mountains shortly before the Olympics opened in Mexico.
“I was totally isolated for three weeks, but I continued to train,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “While the Soviet gymnasts were already in Mexico City, adjusting to the altitude and the climate, I was hanging from trees, practicing my floor exercise in the meadow in front of the cottage and building callouses on my hands by shoveling coal.”
Instead of weights, she lifted potato sacks.
“We went to Mexico,” she recalled in an interview cited by Reuters news agency, “determined to sweat blood to defeat the invaders’ representatives.”
Ms. Caslavska collected gold medals for her performance on the uneven bars and vault and as the all-around champion. On the balance beam and in the team competition, she won silver, with the Soviets taking gold.
In the floor exercise event, to the audience’s delight, Ms. Caslavska danced to the Mexican Hat Dance. A late scoring change resulted in a tie between her and Petrik. As she had done in the balance beam medal ceremony, Ms. Caslavska bowed her head down and to the right during the playing of the Soviet national anthem.
In the United States, the gymnast’s political action was overshadowed by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter dash, who raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute during their medals ceremony. But Ms. Caslavska’s protest nonetheless resonated in her home country and around the world. …
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