Vera Caslavska, a Czech gymnast who catapulted to global attention not only for her gold medal wins at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, but also for her highly visible protest against Soviet occupation of her country during the awards ceremony, died Aug. 30. She was 74.
The Czech Olympic Committee, which described her as “the most successful Czech Olympian of all time,” announced her death on its website. The Associated Press reported that she died in Prague after undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Described at the time as the “glamour girl of the 1968 Olympics,” 26-year-old Ms. Caslavska captured the world’s affection with her seemingly weightless grace in competition.
But it was her defiant act of patriotism atop the Olympic podium, which she shared in a tie with the Soviet gymnast Larisa Petrik for the floor exercise event, that perhaps most cheered her compatriots and their allies on either side of the Iron Curtain.
In August 1968, two months before the Games began, Soviet-led forces invaded Czechoslovakia on Leonid Brezhnev’s orders to end the movement toward liberalization known as the Prague Spring. Ms. Caslavska — who had collected three gold medals, including the all-around, at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo — had previously joined other Czech dissidents in signing the “Two Thousand Words” calling for progress toward democracy.
Fearing arrest by the Soviets, she went into hiding in the mountains shortly before the Olympics opened in Mexico.
“I was totally isolated for three weeks, but I continued to train,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “While the Soviet gymnasts were already in Mexico City, adjusting to the altitude and the climate, I was hanging from trees, practicing my floor exercise in the meadow in front of the cottage and building callouses on my hands by shoveling coal.”
Instead of weights, she lifted potato sacks.
“We went to Mexico,” she recalled in an interview cited by Reuters news agency, “determined to sweat blood to defeat the invaders’ representatives.”
Ms. Caslavska collected gold medals for her performance on the uneven bars and vault and as the all-around champion. On the balance beam and in the team competition, she won silver, with the Soviets taking gold.
In the floor exercise event, to the audience’s delight, Ms. Caslavska danced to the Mexican Hat Dance. A late scoring change resulted in a tie between her and Petrik. As she had done in the balance beam medal ceremony, Ms. Caslavska bowed her head down and to the right during the playing of the Soviet national anthem.
In the United States, the gymnast’s political action was overshadowed by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter dash, who raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute during their medals ceremony. But Ms. Caslavska’s protest nonetheless resonated in her home country and around the world.
“The reception was wonderful,” she told the AP before leaving Mexico, looking back on her experience at the Games. “I felt I was lifted off the ground and could perform with ease, defying all gravity.”
Despite the dangers that awaited her in Czechoslovakia, Ms. Caslavska returned home. “I had a very strong feeling,” she told the Los Angeles Times, “that I should stay here because I could reinforce the self-esteem of the Czech people.”
For years she was barred from travel and from involvement with gymnastics. She supported herself as a house cleaner before eventually presenting herself before a national athletics official in her gymnastics suit and declaring that she would not leave his office without a job. He relented, although she was hired only as an adviser to other coaches.
By the late 1970s, Ms. Caslavska was permitted to coach in Mexico, where the memory of her performance conferred on her a degree of athletic royalty. She refused to ever disown her signature on the manifesto and became an adviser to Vaclav Havel after the Velvet Revolution that ended the communist regime in Czechoslovakia brought him to power as president in 1989.
Ms. Caslavska was born May 3, 1942, in Prague. She was an ice skater before turning to gymnastics.
She won team silver — her first Olympic medal — in Rome in 1960 and took a slew of medals at European and world championships. In Tokyo, she won gold for the vault, the balance beam and the individual all-around, in addition to a silver team medal.
Before leaving Mexico to return to Czechoslovakia, she married an Olympic teammate, the runner Josef Odlozil, in a ceremony mobbed by onlookers.
“It was like a Hollywood premiere mixed with a hot-headed crowd at a Latin-American soccer match,” the AP reported at the time. They had two children, Martin and Radka, and later were divorced.
A Czech court convicted Martin Odlozil of assault in a 1993 altercation that led to his father’s death. For years after the episode, Ms. Caslavska was absent from the public eye. Havel later pardoned her son.
In the 1990s, Ms. Caslavska served as president of her country’s Olympic committee and as a member of the International Olympic Committee. She never abandoned her political dissent, speaking out in recent times against xenophobia and on behalf of refugees.
“I am a Czechoslovak citizen,” she told the media in 1969, after she had first used her athletic exploits for a social cause.“We all tried harder to win in Mexico because it would turn the eyes of the world on our unfortunate country.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries