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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.

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The images from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, particularly the 1982 film of that name, are haunting.

“We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control”, chant the students in unison, faces blank, walking into the gaping maw of a meat grinder.

In 1977, fifteen-year old Christiane Knacke, was a promising swimmer in East Germany, the first woman to swim the 100-meter butterfly in less than a minute. Now targeted for greatness, Knacke’s coach began to put his new swimming prodigy on a new regimen, as explained the wonderful tome, The Complete Book of the Olympics, by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky.

Christiane Knocke
Christiane Knacke in 1980

“Her coach, Rolf Glasen now added to her regime a daily dose of ten to fifteen steroid pills. She also received shots of cortisone and procraine and, twice a week, intraveneous drips of an unknown liquid. In less than a year Knacke grew from 50 kilograms (110 pounds) to 65 kilograms (143 pounds).”

At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, boycotted by over 60 nations in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the East Germans swept the women’s 100-meter butterfly, 18-year old Knacke taking the bronze. According to Wallechinsky and Loucky, right after her triumph in Moscow, Knacke had three operations on her elbow, her bones having turned to “crystal” due to an excessive intake of anabolic steroids.

In 1998, 9 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Knacke was a co-plaintiff in a suit against former East German coaches who oversaw the implementation of the systematic doping. Glaser publicly apologized to Knacke, and Knacke voluntarily gave up her bronze medal.

According to this PBS article, The East German Sports Performance Committee, with the

Rudolf Abel
Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, actual (left) and as portrayed in the film, Bridge of Spies by Mark Rylance

I recently watched Steven Spielberg’s film, Bridge of Spies. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, Spielberg needed time to tell the complicated story of how an insurance lawyer from New York ended up representing an arrested English Soviet spy living in New York, and subsequently getting in the middle of a two-front prisoner exchange negotiation in Cold War Berlin between uncertain representatives of the Soviet Union and East Germany, whose own alliance seemed strained at best.

And yet the time of the film zipped by. Tom Hanks plied his Everyman shtick to perfection as the lawyer thrust into geo-political intrigue. Mark Rylance was absolutely riveting as the captured Soviet spy, and the famed Coen brothers helped craft a narrative that was clear, and at times, witty.

One particular scene, which apparently had no basis in fact and was done for dramatic effect (effectively), made me wonder. It was a scene where Tom Hanks’ character, James Donovan, is crossing from East to West Berlin over the wall, and witnesses in horror the shooting of a would-be escapee. What must have been the feelings of West and East German athletes at the Summer Games a few years after the wall went up, especially since they had to compete as one German team? Were they happy? Antagonistic? Were they so focused that they simply didn’t notice each other?

East Germany sent no athletes to the Helsinki Games in 1952. But at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, 37 East Germans joined West Germans on a unified German team. This unified German team was identified by the country code GER, was represented by a flag with black, red and yellow stripes, centered by five white Olympic rings, and was presented gold medals using the opening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.german olympic flag

When East Germany was expected to send around 140 athletes to the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, East and West decided that it was time for both German teams to live and train together. But 15 years of political rhetoric had created a cultural rift between the two sides. For example, as David Maraniss wrote in his book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, “it was part of the daily rhetoric of East Germany to denounce West German leaders as former Nazis.” The victories of East German diver Ingrid Kramer were an inspiration to all Germans, but the rise of the Berlin Wall and geo-political tensions made a lie of the unified German team. Again, Maraniss writes,

The Berlin border closing during the Olympics had gone largely unnoticed by German athletes in Rome, but months later it took on an unavoidable physical reality when the Berlin Wall went up. Kraemer called the construction of the wall “a huge surprise…It was very cruel for many, especially the finality of it. We were all shocked, as nothing had hinted to its erection before it happened.” The wall, and the cold war tensions that followed, made a sham of Avery Brundage’s insistence that the Germans bring another unified team to the Olympics in 1964. West German sports officials refused to have anything to do with their East German counterparts after the wall went up, and fielded a combined team in Tokyo in name only, barely able to “maintain the façade of being unified,” in the words of historian Heather L. Dicther.

Read a relevant post I wrote previously, Escape from East Berlin in October 1964: A Love Story.

Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964
Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, East and West Germany competed as one team, under a single flag, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Ode to Joy) their national anthem. But the unity of the “German” team was more of a mirage, as geopolitical realities extended Cold War distance to the athletes.

At the time, the Iron Curtain was a philosophical metaphor for the Cold War, but the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Berlin was a very real barrier. Only three days before the opening of the 1964 Olympic Games, it was reported that 57 people had successfully escaped from East to West Berlin through a tunnel dug under the wall. As was written in the AP report, “it was believed to be one of the biggest mass escapes since the Red Wall was erected in the summer of 1961.”

During the existence of the Wall, from 1961 to 1989, around 5,000 people escaped in a variety of ways – balloons, tightrope, and tunnels. The 57 who escaped made it through what is now known as “Tunnel 57”.

A civil engineering student in East Berlin named Joachim Neumann was able to sneak past border guards to West Berlin posing as a Swiss student in 1961. And while Neumann continued his studies in West Berlin, he also began to apply his learnings to the building of tunnels under the Wall.

Neumann’s first project was on a team building a tunnel in 1962, resulting in the successful escape of 29 people over two days, September 14 and 15. Neumann had a girlfriend in East Berlin, but was unable to inform her in time of the day of escape. But Tunnel 29, as it is now known, was Neumann’s realization that he would have other opportunities to bring his girlfriend to freedom.

Unfortunately, the next attempt to build a tunnel ended in calamity as the East German secret police uncovered the existence of the tunnel under progress. One of the people arrested was Neumann’s girlfriend, Christina, who was held for 8 months before being sentenced to two years in prison.

Joachim and Christina Neumann
Joachim and Christina Neumann

And Neumann continued to work on tunnel projects from the West Berlin side, including an excavation from April to October in 1964, the very one cited in the AP article above. Here is how the site, Berlin Wall Memorial, tells the rest of the story.

The escape operation was supposed to begin on October 3, 1964. But Joachim Neumann had to take an exam that day. When he returned to his apartment, he found a letter from his girlfriend. She wrote that she had been released early from prison and was back in Berlin. Joachim Neumann had to be at the opening to the tunnel in three hours and wasn’t able to find a courier on such short notice. He asked his friend to help and rushed to Bernauer Strasse. It was his job to greet the people escaping on the East Berlin side. It was quite late when his girlfriend appeared before him. She was one of 57 people who