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Gymnast Profiles: Vera Caslavska

Date of Birth: May 3, 1942
Place of Birth: Prague, Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic)
Height: 5'3" (160 cm)
Years Active: 1958-1968
Fun Fact: Holds 22 International Titles, Including 7 Olympic Golds

Vera Caslavska is a gymnast known for her outspoken political actions as much as she is for her gymnastics.

Vera started out originally as a figure skater, but soon went to gymnastics. At sixteen, she made her international debut at the 1958 World Championships and helped the Czech team bring home a silver medal in the team final. At the 1959 European Championships, Vera brought home a gold medal for the balance beam and a silver medal on the vault and at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, the Czech team brought home another team silver.

Vera's peak came at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, winning the coveted gold medal in the All-around and on the balance beam. Between 1964 and 1968 Vera set her sights on winning every medal possible, winning an all-around World Championship medal in 1966 and eleven gold medals at the European championships, including two all around gold medals.

At the 1968 Games in Mexico City, Vera cemented herself as a gymnastics unicorn when she made her third Olympic team at 26. She further established her dominance by medaling in every single event, including her second all-around gold. She dazzled the Mexican audience with her winning smile and performance and pandered to the crowd with her Mexican Hat Dance floor routine.

After the games, Vera celebrated another major life event when she married Olympic silver medalist, Josef Odlozil at the Mexico City Cathedral, attended by thousands of people.

1968 was the year of Vera's now infamous protest. This was 1968, Communism was in full force and the Soviet Union was on a mission to dominate the World. Vera watched in frustration while Soviet tanks rolled into her home country with intent to dominate. Earlier that year, Vera and thousands of frustrated Czechoslovakians signed the Manifesto of 2000 Worlds, a document that grew out of the Prague Spring of 1968, a movement for the democratization of Czechoslovakia.

Later, the signors of the document were persued as criminals. Vera fled and was forced to take hiding while using rudimentary materials for training, while the Soviets had gone to Mexico to acclimate to the climate. She was allowed to rejoin her teammates in time for the Olympics.

During the event finals, Vera tied with Larisa Petrik for gold on floor and on beam, Vera was awarded the silver, when the judges boosted the score of Natalia Kuchinskaya, giving her the gold over Vera. Disheartened with the judges favoring of the Soviet athletes and frustrated by the political turmoil within her country as a result of Soviet oppression, Vera silently protested. During the playing of the Soviet anthem, Vera silently looked away and down in a silent protest.

After the games and her wedding, Vera and Josef went back to Czechoslovakia to settle down. Vera had hopes to start a family and write her autobiography . The couple had two children, Martin and Radka. Her hopes of having her autobiography published were dashed with the reality of the protest. The Czech government, now overrun by communist leaders, refused to have it published in the country. Vera wound up being able to publish her autobiography in Japan, but the government wanted it to be heavily censored.

Although her fellow countrymen/women supported her actions, the government continued it's persecution of Vera. They hit her where it hurt the most. The gymnastics federation refused to allow her to travel internationally or domestically to gymnastics competitions. Vera tried applying for coaching positions, but then was denied. Officials put pressure on her, saying that if she denied signing the Manifesto,  they'd loosen their grip. Vera refused.

Vera landed a position in Mexico in 1979. The Czech government was trying to improve economic relations with Mexico. Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo requested Vera having remembered her performance at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. She was granted leave only when the Mexican authorities threatened to cease oil exports to the country. She stayed there for two years.

''I don't want to say I was exchanged for oil,'' Vera said to the New York Times in 1990.

In 1984, then International Olympic Committee President, Juan Antiono Samaranch asked to see Vera and 1952 Olympic distance runner, Emil Zatopek. Government officials refused, saying that  Zatopek was ill and Vera had family problems. Undeterred by the weak excuses, the next year, Samaranch returned and insisted that he present them with Olympic order.

As the communist hold weakened, Vera was allowed to join the European Gymnastics Union in 1985 and became a coach for the Czech national team and a representative for Czechoslovakia. By 1989, twenty-one years after Vera's silent protest and the signing of the Manifesto of 2000 Worlds, the Communist control in Czechoslovakia ended. Vera became a national hero and became involved heavily in the government, becoming an advisor to President Vaclav Havel on matters of health care, human rights, physical education and sport. As of January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia became a country that only existed in history books, as the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia after a non-violent separation.

Personally, her life was not as smooth. In 1987, after nearly twenty years of marriage and having two children together, she and Josef Odlozil divorced. Six years later 1993, tragedy ensued. Martina and Josef ran into each other at a club and sometime later, a fight broke out. Martin punched his father in the face. Josef crumpled to the floor and fell into a coma. He died September 10, 1993 as a result of those injuries. 19-year-old Martin was arrested for assault and then later, tried and convicted of the death of his father. Afterwards, Vera became severely depressed and had to receive psychiatric treatment in 1998. In 1996, Martin was pardoned by President Havel, a controversial decision and one that many speculated had been made with a bias since Vera had been his close friend and advisor for many years.

Today, Vera lives a private, quiet life in the Czech Republic and she still resides in Prague. She is still known and beloved worldwide for her gymnastics accomplishments and her fight for the democratization of the Czech people.

Her gymnastics honors include :
1998 induction into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
1989 Pierre de Coubertin International Fair Play Trophy by UNESCO and was noted at the ceremony for her "exemplary dignity."
1995 Czech Republic's Medal of Merit
1991 Inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame
2010 Awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, 3rd class
1968, she presented a katana and a ceremonial kimono from the Japanese emperor

New York Times: A Departure From The Past
Radio Prague: Czechoslovak Sports Legend Vera Caslavska Celebrates 60th Birthday
Caslavska Emerges From 10 Year Seclusion Vera Caslavska
Wikipedia Věra Čáslavská
Public Ponders Havel's Pardons
Death of Olympic Hero After Dance Floor Fight

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