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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olga-karasyova
Olga Karasyova

When famed Czech gymnast, Vera Caslavska, passed away last month, there was a section in a Guardian article about Caslavska that shocked me. In 1968, the Soviet Union’s women’s gymnastics team defeated the Czech team to take gold at the Mexico City Olympics. The Soviet team was said to have apparently employed a most horrifying doping technique.

To counter Caslavska and her team-mates, the Soviets took extreme measures. “In any other country it would have been called rape,” one of the Soviet coaches said a quarter of a century later, after one of the gymnasts had told a German television interviewer what happened.

Doctors had discovered that pregnant women could gain an advantage in muscle power, suppleness and lung capacity, because they produced more red blood cells. So all the gymnasts, two of whom were 15 at the time, were forced to become pregnant before the Olympics: if they did not have a husband or boyfriend, they were made to have sex with a male coach. Anyone who refused was thrown off the team.

After 10 weeks of pregnancy every gymnast had an abortion. They won the team gold medal by a fraction of a point, with Czechoslovakia second.

Wow.

This can’t be true, I thought. But it was reported in a major newspaper, I rationalized. But coaches could never get so many people to do this, I countered. But it’s been reported not only in the press, but also in documentaries, I learned.

The story first emerged in a major BBC documentary series in 1991 called “More Than a Game”. Then in 1994, a German RTL documentary featured, Olga Kovalenko, a member of that 1968 Soviet gymnastics team, who revealed the sordid details of pregnancy doping.

olga-karasyova-2But as Elizabeth Booth explains in this detailed blog post in November, 2015, it appears this sensational story of rape, pregnancy, abortion and hormones is bogus. The biggest hole in the story was the German documentary’s claim that Soviet Olga Kovalenko was revealing all. Apparently, the woman in the documentary was not Olga Kovalenko. The real gymnast, the one who competed in Mexico City on the Soviet gold-medal winning team, took a Russian sports magazine to court in proving that she was not a victim of rape doping.

Here’s how Kovalenko explained her surprise at this incredible story in a 2001 interviewa 2001 interview with a Russian journalist:

Once, German broadcaster RTL screened an interview … with my double!   A certain woman who said that she was Olympic champion in gymnastics, Olga Kovalenko.  (I actually took the surname of my second husband, but then divorced and again became Karaseva.). She gave a sensational interview, saying that the USSR coach forced the girls to get pregnant and then at the ninth or tenth week to have an abortion!  Doctors know that at these times there is a sharp increase in the levels of male hormones in the woman’s body, which in girls increases physical strength and brings new resources of life, a feeling of elation. It is meant to be a kind of doping. “That’s how we won,” – these are the words of the imaginary “Kovalenko”.

Of course, this interview was published by many news agencies, newspapers and magazines. The Moscow correspondent of the Spanish newspaper “ABC” Juan Jimenez de Partha somehow tracked down my phone and asked about the meeting. Imagine his disappointment when I told him it’s easy to prove that it is a pure fake. At the time, when my “understudy” was broadcasting live on abortion, I was on a sea cruise.  There is evidence in my passport!

Then “Paris Match” reporter Michel Peyrard, who had seen the “tremendous” interview on RTL, flew in to see me.  He was pretty surprised that I could speak perfect French, but also frustrated because he found no resemblance to the “Olga from Germany”.

In the end, as Booth explained, the suspicion of doping in the former Soviet Union was high at the time the story came out, as it is today with Russia, and thus our resistance to believing a story like this, even one as fantastical as this, has been low.

At the time the papers – quality and tabloid press alike – had little good to say about the sport.  A high profile rumour was also circulating that the female gymnasts were fed drugs to delay puberty, including one case where an ‘expert’ (we never found out exactly who) had observed photographs of a gymnast where her physical development had actually receded, rather than progressed.  The words ‘I would believe anything’ summed up the attitude of many in the press at that time.  

vera-caslavska_mexico-city

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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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.”