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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A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum
A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum

Canagasabai Kunalan strolled through the Singapore Sports Museum, walking his guest through Singapore’s greatest sporting achievements, explaining the history with enthusiasm, with the skills honed over decades as a teacher.

But C. Kunalan was more than just a teacher. As we walked through the corridors, passers-by would recognize the fit, elderly gentleman as the man who held the title, Singapore’s fastest, for decades. In fact, Kunalan had held at different points the fastest marks in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters in Singapore track history.

It was 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, when Kunalan set the Singapore record for 100 meters, a mark that stood for 33 years.

Jim Hines set the world record in the 100-meters in Mexico City with a time of 9.95, considerably faster than Kunalan’s 10.38. But when you think about it purely from a statistical perspective, Singapore had a tiny talent pool. The population of Singapore in 1968 was 2 million, only 1% of the entire US population, and roughly the same population of Hines’ state of Arkansas that year.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_2
Kunalan finishing third (719) in a 100-meter heat to advance. Eventual gold winner Jim Hines strolls into the finish.

Kunalan defied the odds, advancing beyond the first round at the Mexico City Games to be recognized as one of the top 32 fastest men in the world. And if you know the history of Southeast Asia in the 1960s, you know that in 1968, Singapore was only in its third year as a sovereign nation. It wasn’t clear until the last days before departing Singapore whether Kunalan had the funds to even travel to Mexico.

In the end, Kunalan made it to Mexico City, and he was there to compete. But he knew, as a sprinter, he and his teammates were significantly behind those in the advanced industrial economies, or in the nations under the flag or influence of the Soviet Union. In his biography, C. Kunalan – Singapore’s Greatest Track and Field Athlete, written by Steven Quek, a one-time colleague of his in the National Institute of Education, Quek explains how support and role modeling by others contributed to his development.

At the Mexico City Olympics Kunalan recalled simple but powerful gestures: USA Assistant Track Coach Stan Wright offering Kunalan the use of Team USA’s masseurs for a pre-competition rub down, or Bahaman sprinter Tom Robinson coming up to Kunalan to suggest that the Singaporean be aware that he was exerting too much effort into the first 20 meters of his sprint, when he should in fact be conscious of staying relaxed. “Tom, a world-class athlete, was willingly sharing advice with an unknown from Asia. Kunalan never forgot this.”

After Kunalan’s competitions ended, he was then able to watch the very best athletes in the world demonstrate the highest levels of physical achievement:

Ever the teacher, Kunalan understood that for Singapore athletes to succeed internationally, to reach the world-class levels on display at the Olympics, their training must improve, as he explained in a letter to his wife:

We must get very serious about training. There are about 6 short men all doing 10 or 10.1. Why? Arms and legs big!! Mine only 1/2. You know darling! If I can get their strength, I will be doing 10 sec too.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_1
C, Kunalan in Mexico City

Kunalan would retire from track in 1970, but would go on to become one of Singapore’s most successful primary and secondary school teachers, twice being recognized as “Teacher of the Year”. He currently works for the Singapore Sports Council, in offices near the Singapore Sports Museum.

Maybe you’ll be lucky to see him there, get a tour like I did, and learn from a man who has literally lived the history of Singapore sports.

The logo for the World Anti-Doping Agency
The logo for the World Anti-Doping Agency

It appears that success is catching up with Kenya. Soon after topping the medals table at the World Athletics Championships in August, Kenya is under fire for an apparent and rampant doping of athletes, and now face a possible 4-year ban from competition, which would include the Rio Olympics in 2016.

As the New York Times reported, a Kenyan profession who headed an independent investigation into drug use by Kenyan athletes told the French magazine, “L’Equippe, “In this country, there is more EPO being consumed by athletes than by the ill.”

When Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia made his mark as a gold medalist from North Africa in Rome and Tokyo in the early 1960s, and fellow Africans began to find success in track, it was thought that the tradition of running long distances in high altitude environments was a natural competitive advantage.

But apparently, that advantage was not enough, and Kenyans in particularly have fallen into a culture of performance enhancing drugs. EPO, or erythropoietin, which is a hormone that controls the production of red blood cells, is now commonly used. Allegations of doping were strengthened when the blood tests of championship athletes, including 77 Kenyans, were leaked to the British paper, The Sunday Times, earlier this year.

Rita Jeptoo, of Kenya, breaks the tape to win the women's division of the 118th Boston Marathon Monday, April 21, 2014 in Boston. She Marathons, tested positive for a banned substance in September 2014 and was banned for two years in January.  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Rita Jeptoo, of Kenya, breaks the tape to win the women’s division of the 118th Boston Marathon Monday, April 21, 2014 in Boston. She Marathons, tested positive for a banned substance in September 2014 and was banned for two years in January.
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Unfortunately, what has not become commonplace is a custom of testing and accountability. Just yesterday, Kenya Olympic Committee president, Kip Keino expressed the seriousness of the threat to Kenya. “It is no longer just a threat,” said the two-time Olympic champion. “They think Kenya is sweeping doping issues under the carpet.” According to this Reuters report, the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) has been tracking Kenya’s doping situation for many years, but now seem about to act.