Olympic star and 1968 invasion protestor Věra Čáslavská dies

Věra Čáslavská, photo: CTK

The sad news was announced on Wednesday that the most successful ever Czech Olympic athlete, Věra Čáslavská, died at the age of 74. She had been battling cancer of the pancreas. The gymnast will be remembered not just for her medals but for her protest against the Soviet bloc invasion of Czechoslovakia at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Věra Čáslavská,  photo: CTK
Věra Čáslavská had already made her mark on the global sporting scene before the Mexico Olympics which were staged just two months after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to crush the reforming movements in the country. Čáslavská had won a silver medal with the Czechoslovak team in the 1960 Rome Olympics.

She won gold, silver, and bronze medals at the world championships in her home town Prague in 1962 and went on to do even better with two golds at the event in 1966. And at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 she took home gold medals for the combined all around, vault and beam competitions and was one of the stars of the competition and a big hit with the Japanese audiences.

In the heady atmosphere of Mexico, which she compared to a bull ring, Čáslavská did even better with four golds, adding the top medals for the uneven bars and floor exercise to her tally. She was regarded as the queen of the Olympic competition.

Věra Čáslavská at the Mexico Olympics 1968,  photo: CTK
The Czech gymnast said later she had set her heart on winning as many golds as she could, often in competition with top Soviet gymnasts, to protest her country’s invasion. But Čáslavská wanted to make the point on the medals podium as well when both the Czechoslovak and Soviet anthems were played. She pointedly turned her head down and away from the Soviet flag when the bombastic anthem was played at two of her medal ceremonies.

Věra Čáslavská told Czech Television in an interview earlier this year, when already battling cancer, that the first time around her protest was an impromptu reaction to the unloved anthem:

“All of a sudden my hairs stood on end and I automatically turned my head not to the ground, because the flag was quite low and I was on the podium, but perceptively to the side away from the occupier’s flag. It was understood by the Western journalists and at home by ours as well. The gesture was on the borderline of what was acceptable. The International Olympic Committee could have easily disqualified me if it had gone even the slightest bit further.”

But it was not so much that gesture but another decision before the Olympics, to sign one of the key documents of the so-called Prague Spring, 2000 words, which called for reforms beyond those which the Czechoslovak Communist Party was willing to concede, which got her into trouble.

Věra Čáslavská in 1964,  photo: CTK
After Mexico, Čáslavská was put under intense pressure to withdraw her signature. Unlike some other famous personalities, she refused and paid a dear price. At one stage she was reduced to being a cleaner. She was later even banned from this work for fear that her treatment would become known in the West.

Věra Čáslavská returned to the forefront of public life after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, turning down offers such as ambassador to Japan or Mayor of Prague, and opting to become an advisor to the new president, Václav Havel. She was outspoken for the values she cherished until her death.