How many people have heard of the gymnast Vera Caslavska, who passed away yesterday?
Selfishly her death struck me with great sadness as I had been endeavouring to find a way to meet her and interview her. I wanted to tell the story of her lesser known protest at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, and the ramifications of that protest and the effect it had on her life before she was finally accepted again.
The Mexico Olympic Games in 1968 are remembered for one of the most overtly political statements ever made at an Olympic Games. African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after having won gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200 metre sprint, turned on the podium to face their flags. Each athlete raised a black-gloved fist and kept them raised until the anthem had finished and stood barefoot with their head lowered. Both Smith and Carlos, as well as silver medalist Australian Peter Norman all wore human rights badges. The salute has been referred as being one for Black Power but in truth it was always about human rights and the treatment of African Americans in the USA.
Vera Caslavska’s protest was slightly more demure but it also caused a great deal of trouble. As Communism looked to be on the wane and democracy looked to be a very real alternative in the then Czechoslovakia, Russia invaded in 1968, to ensure that Communist rule was maintained. At the Olympic Games which Russia was allowed to participate at despite protests from many that they should not be on account of their invasion, Caslavska took her protest to the world stage. During two medal ceremonies she quietly looked down and away while the Soviet national anthem was played.
It was senator Bobby Kennedy who famously said “Each time a man (in this case a woman) stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Caslavska’s actions were applauded by her compatriots, but they resulted in her becoming a far from popular figure when she returned home under the new regime. She was forced into retirement and for many years was denied the right to travel, work and attend sporting events.
Ironically as the iron fist began to loosen its grip in the country Caslavska was paired to work with another sporting hero who lost his job and his status as a national hero for speaking out against the Soviet invasion, the legendary runner Emil Zatopek.
Caslavska won seven Olympic gold medals and four silver between 1960 and 1968. She is one of just five women to win four golds in one Games; American gymnast Simone Biles is the most recent to achieve this having done so in Rio.
After winning the four gold and two silver in Mexico, Caslavska was awarded Czechoslovakia’s Sportsperson of the Year award her fourth and final time.
Later Czech authorities refused to publish her autobiography, and then insisted that it be heavily censored when it was finally released in Japan. She was granted leave to work as a coach in Mexico, but according to reports only when the Mexican government of the day threatened to cease its oil exports to Czechoslovakia.
In the late 1980s, following pressure from Juan Antonio Samaranch, the then president of the International Olympic Committee, Caslavska was finally allowed to work as a gymnastics coach and judge in her home country. She along with Zatopek was awarded the Olympic Order. She received numerous other awards from around the world and eventually was elected President of the Czech Olympic Committee from 1990-96.
Ms Caslavska passed away yesterday aged 74 after suffering from Pancreatic Cancer. She was a remarkable athlete and a truly strong individual who was prepared to face the consequences of standing up for what she believed was right.
It was Theodore Roosevelt who said “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena – whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions – and spends himself in a worthy cause – who at best if he wins knows the thrills of high achievement – and if he fails at least fails while daring greatly – so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.” He could well have been talking about Vera Caslavska.
May she rest in eternal peace but may her memory life long into the future.