Věra Čáslavská was a Czech artistic gymnast known not only for her many international and Olympic titles but also one brave gesture.
Table of Contents
How it all began
Čáslavská was born on May 3, 1942 in Prague, Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic). Her talent for athletics was apparent from a young age. She started with ballet and figure skating but meeting Eva Bosáková, another Czech Olympic medalist in gymnastics, changed it all. Bosáková began couching Čáslavská when the girl was almost 15 years old. The same year, young Věra won the national championship, junior category, the next year, her team won second place in the World Championship on Moscow although individually, she placed eighth. She even competed against her couch in the Championship of Czechoslovakia 1958, placing second after her couch Bosáková who was 9 years her senior.
Many more individual and team victories followed.
Photo from the archive of Věra Čáslavská
Counting only the European and World Championships and the Olympic games and only her medal titles, Věra Čáslavská won 34 titles in 9 years, most of them were gold medals. She remains the only gymnast, male or female, to have won an Olympic gold medal in each individual event.
One Brave Gesture
Čáslavská’s prime continued with gold medals in all categories at the European Championship in Amsterdam in 1967 and she confirmed her position as a clear favorite for the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City. However, she signed The Two Thousand Words manifesto in June of 1968 and just two months later, the Invasion of Czechoslovakia by 5 Soviet armies happened and Čáslavská voiced her opposition strongly. She had to leave her training facility and spent the weeks leading up to the Olympics in a hut in Vřesová studánka where she tried to stay in shape in primitive conditions and not knowing whether she’d be allowed to go to Mexico. Her permission was granted at the very last moment.
And Věra Čáslavská absolutely dominated the 1968 Olympics, winning 2 silver medals and 4 gold medals. However, the Olympic world was already heavily involved in politics at that time and the scores of the Soviet gymnast Larisa Petrik were upgraded to match those of Čáslavská and a tie for the gold medal was created. And just a little before, Natalia Kuchinskaya’s clearly inferior balance beam performance received higher score than Čáslavská’s, costing the legend of Czech gymnastics a gold medal.
Čáslavská decided to voice her opinion once more, only this time not in words. She chose a silent form of protest against what was happening in her country as well as the world’s silence to the turmoil and as the Soviet anthem started to play for both Petrik and Kuchinskaya, she turned her head down. A gesture that the whole world noticed and that ended Čáslavská’s career.
Years later, in an interview, she expressed gratitude to the organizers of the games for playing the Czechoslovak anthem before the Soviet one.
Although she was received as a hero by the Czechoslovak public, her sports federation and the political leadership were not pleased with her support of the Prague Spring and opposition to the politics of the USSR. Čáslavská refused to take back her signature of the aforementioned manifesto and visits paid by the communist police StB became a regular thing.
Even though she won Czechoslovakia’s Sportsperson of the Year for fourth consecutive time, Čáslavská was banned from international as well as national events and forced into retirement. Upon the Mexican government insisting, she was allowed to leave for Mexico to coach gymnastics there and she was later allowed to resume coaching in her home country in the 1980s.
Her situation improved after the Velvet Revolution. Věra Čáslavská was elected president of the Czech Olympic Committee and also became President Havel’s adviser on sports and social matters. She was offered other positions, like the mayor of Prague, however, she refused them.
Family Drama and Honors
Čáslavská married Josef Odložil, also an athlete, in Mexico in 1968. Due to her enormous Olympic success, she became an instant star in Mexico and the wedding was broadcasted and the church ceremony attended by thousands. The couple had two children, a son and a daughter, and divorced in 1987. In 1993, her son killed his father in an physical altercation, in which the father fell and struck his head. Her son served only few years in prison until being released due to Havel’s presidential pardon in 1997. After these unfortunate family events, Věra Čáslavská struggled with depression for 15 years, overcoming it in the end and returning to social life and helping your Czech athletes.
Among Čáslavská’s honors is the Pierre de Coubertin International Fair Play Trophy by UNESCO, the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit, the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun and the induction into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
Věra Čáslavská died in the summer of 2016 but her legacy lives on. An inner main belt asteroid (26986) bears her name – Čáslavská. There’s a Czech postal stamp with her portrait and a sportshall in Černošice near Prague was named after her. And last but not least – a combined preschool and elementary school in Prague 6 also bears her name.