Vera Caslavska and Josef Odlozil married
Vera Caslavska and Josef Odlozil married

The pace set by the Kenyans was relentless. The thin air of Mexico was punishing. Favorite Jim Ryun, weakened by a bout with mononucleosis, was whipped by 3 seconds, as Kip Keino dashed to a gold-medal finish in the 1,500 meters at the Mexico City Olympics.

Thirteen seconds after Keino crossed the finish line, Josef Odlozil of Czechoslovakia, finished in twelfth place. It was a poor finish compared to his silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but in the end, Odlozil won the bigger prize.

At the end of the 1968 Olympics, Odlozil married compatriot, and one of the darlings of the Mexico City Games, Vera Caslasvska. The Czech gymnast who won three gold medals in Tokyo, did even better in Mexico City with four more golds. Thousands of people came out to the Mexico City Cathedral to wish the Olympic couple well.

Their marriage was to last not quite 20 years, ending in divorce in 1987. Those 20 years must have been filled with mini dramas, as Odlozil apparently worked for the Czech Army, while Caslavska struggled to establish a productive career after returning from Mexico City. She had supported anti-government movements, and protested against the Soviet invasion after the so-called Prague Spring. Caslavska was not allowed to leave the country or get coaching work.

Odlozil and Caslavska had two children, a boy named Martin and girl named Radka. It appears that relations between father and son were poor, possibly leading to a tragic conclusion.

On August 7, 1993, Odlozil was in a placed called “U Cimbury”, described as a “disco-restaurant” in this post from Once Up a Time in the Vest. As it turned out, Odlozil’s estranged son Martin was also present. Words were exchanged. Punches were thrown. Odlovil fell to the ground, hitting his head, and subsequently fell into a prolonged coma. A little over a month later on September 10, 1993, Odlovil died.

vera caslavska and josef odlozil prague castle_ALAMY
Vera Caslavska and Josef Odlozil Prague Castle_ALAMY

His son Martin was sentenced to four years in prison for murder.

His wife, Vera, fell into depression and was rarely seen in public.

Was Josef looking for his son Martin? Was it true that Martin, upon seeing his father, went to the DJ and request a song called “Green Brains” that was considered offensive to members of the Czech Army? Did Martin, in a fit of rage, go to his father’s car and vandalize it?

All the eyewitnesses were said to be drunk. The only thing that was clear – father and son were in the same place where a fight took place, and Odlovil fell to the floor unconscious.

From the Fall of 1968 to the Fall of 1993, a 25-year drama came to a horrific close.

Being an Olympic champion shields us not from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

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Vera Casalavska, from the book, Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

It was 2011, at the gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, and a special luncheon was held at the Olympic Stadium. Abie Grossfeld, an assistant coach of the US men’s gymnastics team in 1964, was at that luncheon, and remembers when Vera Caslavska entered the room. “All stood up and gave her a standing ovation,” he wrote. “That’s the respect we all gave her.”

Caslavska was the Queen of gymnastics in the 1960s, taking the reins from legendary Russian gymnast, Larisa Latynina. After Latynina won consecutive golds in the All-Arounds in Melbourne in 1956 and in Rome in 1960, Caslavska did the same in Tokyo in 1964 and then in Mexico City in 1968. In addition to a team silver medal in Rome, Caslavska (pronounced cha-SLAF-ska), won a total of 11 medals in her Olympic career, including 7 gold medals. She is the most decorated Olympian from Czechoslovakia, before or after her country broke apart.

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Takashi Ono, Vera Caslavska, Abie Grossfeld, and Yuri Titov at the World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo, 2011; from Abie Grossfeld

She was also immensely popular due to her beauty queen looks. As a former coach described her, she was “like someone you’d take to the high school prom. She had a big bouffant hairstyle and a very womanly body.” Right after the Olympic Games in Mexico City, she married fellow Czech Josef Odlozil in a Roman Catholic ceremony in Mexico City, an event that “was mobbed by thousands of supporters,” cementing her hold on the public imagination.

On August 30, 2016, Vera Caslavska of Prague, passed away. She was 74 years old.

In the 1960s, as gymnasts began blending athleticism and balleticism, Caslavska seemed to find the right balance. Muriel Grossfeld, a member of the US women’s gymnastics team, and she told me that in the 1960s, judges were trying to find the right standard to judge gymnasts. “Until we got the new scoring system, scoring was like a pendulum. One time the more artistic gymnast won, but maybe the next time the more athletic gymnast won. I think Caslavaska blended both very well.”

Why was she so good? As Muriel Grossfeld told me, “she worked hard. She was a perfectionist. Her work ethic was enormous. I remember her working on routine after routine on the beam. 40 times a day!” Makoto Sakamoto was also a member of the US men’s gymnastics team in the 1960s and agreed with Muriel Grossfeld’s assessment. Sakamoto was at a dual US-Czech gymnastics meet in the winter of 1964 where he saw Caslavska compete. He told me he admired the professionalism and preparation of Caslavska.

“I was sixteen and she was about 21 years old.  We both won the all-around  title, but what I remember most about her was the way she prepared for her performances.  Instead of having her coach carry the heavy vaulting board, she did it by herself. When the uneven bar snapped in half  during one of her performances, she just waited patiently until a replacement bar could be installed.  Then she performed her routine without any mistakes.”

Sakamoto also remembers when Caslavska dominated at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He had been training in Tokyo and was actually in the hospital recovering from a ruptured achilles tendon when he “witnessed on black and white television one of the most moving artistic performances” he had ever experienced: Caslavska’s floor exercise routine at the Mexico City Games, performed to the “magic rhythm of the Mexican Hat Dance.” Muriel Grossfeld, who was in Mexico City agreed, telling me “that was a very smart song selection, was fun and built a lot of enthusiasm in the arena.”

She was so dominant in the 1960s that Caslavska is still the only gymnast, male or female to have won gold in every individual artistic gymnastic discipline. As 1984 Olympic gold medalist, Bart Connor, recently said about Caslavska, “She was one of the most dominant gymnasts of her time, balanced in all the events and completely comparable to someone like Simone Biles.”