May 2 (Reuters) - When Vera Caslavska bowed her head and turned away in protest at the Soviet anthem during the 1968 Olympics, the Czech gymnast cemented her place as not only one of the country’s greatest athletes but also as a powerful voice against Communist rule.
Two months after Warsaw Pact tanks swept into Czechoslovakia to crush the “Prague Spring” reforms, the anti-Soviet icon dazzled at the Mexico Games, claiming four golds and becoming one of only two women to win successive titles in the all-around competition.
Yet it was her silent moment of defiance as the anthem played during the medal ceremony for the floor exercise, when she controversially shared a joint gold with a Soviet athlete after the judges upgraded the preliminary scores of her rival, that endeared her to Czechs.
It also made her a beloved figure long after her sporting career had ended.
“We Olympians were the only ones who could demonstrate our attitude to the Soviet occupation to the world at that time of occupation,” Caslavska said in a 2007 interview with iDNES.cz.
All together, Caslavska took seven golds in her two Olympic Games, including back-to-back wins in the vault. She also won the beam at Tokyo 1964 and the uneven bars in 1968.
Caslavska, who began her sporting career as a figure skater, was also the first and only gymnast to win an all-around title at an Olympic Games before winning it at the World Championships, European Championships and ensuing Olympics.
Her main rival in Tokyo, Ukrainian-born Larisa Latynina, was the only other female gymnast to win successive golds in the all-round competition, in 1956 and 1960. “She was a phenomenal sportswoman,” Latynina told Reuters after Caslavska died in 2016 from pancreatic cancer. “Vera and I were friends and we would give each other presents. We would also swap vinyl records.”
Czech authorities, however, nearly stopped Caslavska’s journey to Mexico City in its tracks after she publicly opposed Soviet rule by signing a dissident manifesto in the spring of 1968.
Forced to hide in the mountains to avoid arrest, the gymnast only gained permission to compete at the last minute.
During her time in hiding, she lifted potato sacks to keep fit and substituted logs for beams to prepare for the games where her dominant performances and decision to use the Mexican Hat Dance as music for one of her routines won the adoration of the local fans.
Caslavska topped off her remarkable Olympics by marrying Czech 1,500 metres champion Josef Odlozil in Mexico City, 24 hours after her competition ended, in an event that drew thousands of well wishers.
Yet her triumph abroad did not translate into a warm welcome at home.
Caslavska was expelled from the Czech sports union and ostracised for criticising the 1968 invasion and refusing to withdraw her signature from the Prague Spring protest movement’s “Manifesto of 2000 Words.”
From 1974 she trained other gymnasts at home and also during a spell in Mexico. Czechs later voted her as the nation’s second-greatest athlete after runner Emil Zatopek. When Communist rule ended in Czechoslovakia in 1989, President Vaclav Havel appointed her his adviser for sport and social issues. She also led the Czech Olympic Committee from 1990 to 1996. Her personal life following the country’s “Velvet Revolution” that ended authoritarian rule in 1989 was not easy.
In 1993 her then ex-husband Odlozil died from injuries suffered in a fall after he was struck by their son Martin during a dispute.
In later years, Caslavska fell into a deep depression but overcame the illness and returned to public life, coaching gymnasts and serving as a mentor to younger Olympians.
She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015 and died the following summer. (Reporting by Michael Kahn, Editing by Toby Davis)