The gymnastics career of Vera Caslavska, the seven-time Olympic champion who died this week aged 74, will live on in history. But above and beyond her sporting achievement is the memory of how she effectively ended that career at the 1968 Mexico Games with a podium protest against the Soviet Union, whose forces had invaded her homeland of Czechoslovakia two months earlier.
Having won the all-around, vault and beam golds at the Tokyo 1964, Caslavska completed her set in Mexico as she retained her all-around title by winning the vault again, and the asymmetric bars, as well as taking joint gold in the floor exercises.
The latter event was where her crucial action occurred. Originally adjudged as winner, she was going up to receive her medal when it was announced that the score of the Soviet Union’s Larisa Petrik had been upgraded and the title was to be shared.
When the Soviet Union’s national anthem was played, Caslavska stood with her head down and turned away in a silent but unmistakable protest.
Earlier in the Games after another very controversial judging decision that had cost her gold on beam – with Soviet rival Natalia Kuchinskaya taking the title - Caslavska had also turned her head down and away during the playing of the Soviet national anthem.
Upon her return to a country under Soviet rule she gave her four golds to the Czech leaders of the “Prague Spring” - the doomed attempt to liberalise the Communist regime that had been established by a coup d’etat in 1948.
The podium demonstrations had already settled her fate, and after that defiant homecoming there was no chance of any other outcome. Caslavska was shunned by the Establishment for more than 20 years, losing her job and her right to travel, until the changes brought about by the fall of the Berlin Wall re-established her in triumphant fashion…
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