An outspoken champion

An outspoken champion

Tribute : Vera Caslavska introduced an athletic, acrobatic style to gymnastics

An outspoken champion

Vera Caslavska, the Czech gymnast who passed away in Prague last Tuesday, became a dominant figure in the sport thanks to her seven Olympic gold medals in the 1960s. She also made a name for her public opposition to the Soviet invasion of her homeland, ending her competitive career.

Caslavska (pronounced cha-SLAF-ska) fired a warning shot in the direction of the all-powerful Soviet gymnasts when she finished a close second to the seemingly invincible Larisa Latynina in the all-around at the 1962 World Championships.

She made good on her promise at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, winning gold medals in the vault, in the balance beam and, by defeating Latynina, in the all-around. She also led the Czechs to a silver medal in the team event, behind the Soviets.

Four years later, in Mexico City, Caslavska turned in a performance for the ages, winning gold medals in the vault, the all-around, floor exercise and uneven bars and silver medals in the balance beam and the team competition. She shared the gold medal in the floor exercise with Larisa Petrik of the Soviet Union, who moved up from second place when Soviet judges revised their scores at the last minute.

In all, Caslavska won 22 international titles between 1962 and 1968, with four world championships and 11 European championships titles in addition to her Olympic gold medals. She remains the only gymnast, male or female, to have won an Olympic gold medal in each individual event.

“She was one of the most dominant gymnasts of her time, balanced in all the events and completely comparable to someone like Simone Biles,” Bart Conner, an Olympic gold medalist in 1984, said in a telephone interview, referring to the American gymnast who won four gold medals and a bronze this year at the Rio Games.

Caslavska “was one of the first to introduce a strong, acrobatic, athletic style to gymnastics, which previously had been more dance-oriented,” added Conner, the chairman of the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Vivacious and attractive, with a winning smile and a mass of blond hair held back with a wide band, Caslavska was an audience darling, especially in Mexico City, where she performed her floor routine to “The Mexican Hat Dance.”

Her performance became a political drama when she ascended the podium to receive her gold medal for the floor exercise. When the Soviet national anthem was played for Petrik, Caslavska responded by lowering her head and looking away, an act of defiance that put her career on ice.

Vera Caslavska was born on May 3, 1942, in Prague, where her father ran a small grocery store that was seized by the Communist government in 1948. Athletic as a child, she took up figure skating and applied to the dance conservatory, where her older sister studied.

After being turned down, she found work as a secretary and began studying artistic gymnastics with Eva Bosakova. She made her first international appearance at the 1958 World Championships in Moscow, where she helped the Czechs take second place in the team competition. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, she won a silver medal in the team event and placed sixth in the balance beam. Then she took off for glory. 

“She was built like a spark plug,” American gymnast Kathy Corrigan, who competed against her in 1964, told The Boston Globe in 1997. “She was a chunk, very muscular. But she was fine.”

Caslavska enthusiastically supported political reform in Czechoslovakia, signing the “Two Thousand Words” manifesto in July 1968. That document, calling for democratic change, helped spur the Soviet leadership to send tanks into Prague in August.

Caslavska, fearing arrest, fled to the countryside in Moravia, where she maintained her training regimen by lifting sacks of potatoes, swinging from tree branches and using a log for a balance beam. At the 11th hour, she received permission to compete at the 1968 Games.

“While the Soviet gymnasts were already in Mexico City, adjusting to the altitude and the climate, I was hanging from trees, practicing my floor exercise in the meadow in front of the cottage and building calluses on my hands by shoveling coal,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1990. “Then I went to Mexico and won the gold medal.”

Immediately after the 1968 Games, she married a fellow Czech Olympian, middle-distance runner Josef Odlozil. The marriage ended in divorce. He died in 1993 from wounds inflicted by the couple’s son, Martin, during a fight in a Prague disco. Her son survives her, as does her daughter, Radka.

The post-Olympic years were difficult.“After ascending the summit of Olympus, the journey downward did not exactly follow the well-trodden path,” Caslavska once said. “It consisted of rocks, gorges and a bottomless pit.”

Along with other Czech athletes, she was investigated by the new government for being an “unhealthy influence.” She was barred from competing and, when she refused to recant her political views, was denied employment as a coach. 

After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which ended decades of Communist Party rule, she was appointed an adviser to President Vaclav Havel on sports and social issues. In the 1990s she was chairwoman of the Czechoslovak Olympic Committee and, after the division of Czechoslovakia, of the Czech Olympic Committee. She was a member of the International Olympic Committee from 1995 to 2001.

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