Olympic legend Caslavska loses battle with cancer

Olympic legend Caslavska loses battle with cancer

Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, her country's most celebrated Olympian and one of the most powerful voices in its struggle against Soviet occupation, has died aged 74 of pancreatic cancer.

One of only two women to win back-to-back gold medals as the best all-round gymnast, Caslavska took seven golds in all at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and the 1968 Games in Mexico City.

In the latter she competed against and beat Soviet athletes just weeks after Warsaw Pact tanks led by the Red Army swept into then Czechoslovakia to put down attempts to reform Communist rule.

"We went to Mexico determined to sweat blood to defeat the invaders' representatives," she told news website Aktualne.cz in a 2014 interview.

A lasting memory of those games is Caslavska's silent protest of bowing her head while on the podium when the Soviet anthem played — echoing the more famous image of the Black Power salute that US sprinter Tommie Smith gave in solidarity with African American civil rights.

"Vera was a fighter. She was diagnosed last year in the spring," said Czech Olympic Committee President Jiri Kejval, who announced her death.

"When she did not come with us to (the) Rio (Games) it was clear the situation was bad," he told Reuters by telephone, adding Caslavska had died in her sleep.

After her criticism of the 1968 invasion and refusal to withdraw her signature on the Prague Spring protest movement's "Manifesto of 2000 Words" against Soviet interference, Caslavska was expelled from the Czech sports union and suffered persecution.

From 1974 she trained other gymnasts at home and, between 1979-1981, also in Mexico, the country of her greatest triumph. When Communist rule ended in Czechoslovakia in 1989, new President Vaclav Havel made her his adviser for sport and social issues.

Caslavska also led a revamped Czech Olympic Committee from 1990 to 1996 and was a member of the International Olympic Committee between 1995 and 2001.

Her other medals included back-to-back golds in the vault in the 1964 and 1968 games. She also won the beam in 1964 and the uneven bars and floor exercise in 1968.

Larisa Latynina is the only other female gymnast to win back-to-back gold medals in the all-round competition, in 1956 and 1960 for the Soviet Union. She took silver in the event in Tokyo in 1964, behind Caslavska.

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