Vera Caslavska, Czech gymnastics great, dies at 74
PRAGUE (AP) — Vera Caslavska, a seven-time Olympic gymnastics gold medalist who stood up against the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, has died. She was 74.
The Czech Olympic Committee said Wednesday that Caslavska died in Prague late Tuesday. Caslavska had cancer of the pancreas and underwent surgery last year, the committee previously said. She later had chemotherapy treatment.
“She was always a great role model to others,” said Jiri Kejval, the committee’s president. “Till the last moment, she was full of energy which she managed to pass on to all those around her. We will miss her greatly.”
Born on May 3, 1942, in Prague, Caslavska claimed her first Olympic medal — a silver — at the 1960 Rome Games.
Her golden era began four years later.
She won three Olympic golds in Tokyo in 1964 — in the vault, the individual all-round and the balance beam — to establish herself as a major force in her sport.
Four years later, Caslavska became an outspoken supporter of Alexander Dubcek’s liberal reforms meant to lead toward democratization of communist Czechoslovakia, an era known as the Prague Spring. She signed the Two Thousand Words manifesto published in June 1968 that called for deeper pro-democratic changes. That document angered Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who ordered the Warsaw Pact’s troops to invade Czechoslovakia to crush the reforms in August.
Facing possible persecution, Caslavska went into hiding and was allowed only just before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to join the national gymnastics team.
She triumphed in four disciplines, winning the Olympic gold in the vault, the individual all-round, the floor exercise and the uneven bars. With another two silver medals at the 1968 Games, she became the top medalist and was later named the world’s best female athlete of the year.
For many, she will be remembered for her silent protest against the Soviet invasion. Standing on the top of the medal stand alongside Soviet gymnast Larisa Petrik, with whom she shared the gold in the floor exercise, Caslavska turned her head down and to the right when the Soviet national anthem was played.
Combined with her gymnastic performances, the gesture made her the star of the games.
At home, Caslavska faced persecution from the post-invasion hard-line communist regime. It wasn’t until 1974 that she was allowed to work as coach in her country and later, in 1979-81, in Mexico.
After the 1989 anti-communist Velvet Revolution led by Vaclav Havel ended more than 40 years of communism, Caslavska became Havel’s adviser and was elected the president of the Czechoslovak and later of the Czech Olympic Committee. In 1995-2001, she was a member of the International Olympic Committee.
She received the U.N.’s Pierre de Coubertin Prize for promoting fair play in 1989 and was also awarded the Olympic Order.
In a personal setback, her marriage with Josef Odlozil, an athlete whom she married during the Mexico Games, ended in the 1980s. Her son, Martin, was found guilty of assault that led to his father’s death in 1993 and was sentenced to four years in prison. Although he was soon pardoned by Havel, Caslavska had to undergo treatment for depression and withdrew temporarily from the public life.