The Great Czech Gymnast Vera Caslavska Passes Away Part 2: The Activist

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Vera Caslavska was dominant at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. She won gold in the all arounds, the vault, asymmetric bars and the floor exercise. She also took silver in the beam and team event. When Caslavska was about to go up to receive her gold medal in the floor exercise, the famed Mexican Hat Dance performance, she learned quite abruptly that the floor exercise score of the Soviet Union’s Larisa Petrik was increased, resulting in a tie for gold.

When Caslavska and Petrik stood side by side, listening to the national anthem of the Soviet Union, Caslavska “stood with her head down and turned away in a silent but unmistakable protest.” The Mexico City Olympics were in October 1968. Earlier that year, Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretariat of the Communist Part of Czechoslovakia and began a series of reforms that allowed, most significantly, greater autonomy and freedom of speech. In June of that year, journalist, Ludvik Vaculik, published a paper entitled “The Two Thousand Words“, which was a manifesto protesting the increasingly hard-line elements in the government, and calling for increased reforms and openness. Caslavska, who was not one to shy away from controversy, signed the manifesto, along with hundreds of thousands of others.

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Vera Caslavska turning her head down and away during the Soviet national anthem, with Soviet co-gold medalist Larisa Petrik standing alongside.

In August of 1968, Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, ordered 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks into Czechoslovakia to squash the so-called Prague Spring. As a result of the invasion, Caslavska lost access to her training facilities just weeks prior to the beginning of the Mexico City Olympics. Quite famously, Caslavska trained in the forests of Moravia, improvising with potato sacks for weights and logs for beams.

In other words, Caslavaska likely took the Soviet invasion personally. When she returned to Prague with her treasure trove of medals garnered in Mexico, she did not place them in her trophy case. Instead, Caslavska handed her four gold medals to the Czech leaders of the Prague Spring after they had been deposed by the Soviet Union. This act was not rewarded by the authorities, as Caslavaska immediately fell under a travel ban, and was denied coaching positions. As the obit in The Telegraph summed up, her international career was ended.

It took another six years before Caslavska was finally allowed to work as a gymnastics coach in Czechoslovakia. And when the wall in Berlin fell in 1989, those in power began to look upon Caslavska in a different light. The then new president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, hired Caslavska as an advisor. She was then elected president of the Czech Olympic Committee. UNESCO contributed to the Caslavska revival by recognizing her life’s work in gymnastics with the Pierre de Coubertin International Fair Play Trophy in 1989. Her government honored her with the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit in 1995. And in 1998, she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

When Vera Caslavska passed away on August 30, 2016, the world remembered a woman of beauty, a gymnast extraordinaire who blended athleticism and balletic grace, and an activist who did not shy from her convictions.