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On this International Day of Sport for Development and Peace we remember the dramatic, selfless, historic story of Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavska…
It’s 1968, Mexico City. And this Olympic champion is about to make the life-changing decision. Her actions will be understated, recognized only by those who know. The ramifications are certain be huge. Nevertheless, she stages a political peace protest, right there on the Olympic podium.
Věra Čáslavská was a superstar. She’d won three gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, taking home the individual all-around title. She was World Champion in 1966 and European Champion in 1965 and 1967 when she won five individual golds. She was all that — a once-in-a-lifetime level athlete. Watch her. You’ll see.
She intended to continue her winning streak at the 1968 Games in Mexico, but two months out, she was forced into hiding when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.
Věra had been very active in the underground movement working to liberate her country from Soviet rule. When they invaded, swallowing Czechoslovakia even further under the Soviet dictatorship, she retreated to a remote forest hideout with fellow Prague Spring reformists.
Rather than prepare for the defining competition of her life in a gymnasium, the 26-year-old 2nd-time Olympic hopeful practiced her beam routine on a log and shoveled coal to toughen up her hands for the uneven bars.
In Mexico, Věra’s performance was flawless. Her floor exercise, set to Mexican hat dance music, brought the house down. Everyone considered her a shoe-in for the all-around gold. But the panel, stacked with judges from Eastern Bloc countries decided differently. They went for political expediency rather than good sportsmanship.
They forced Věra to share the floor gold with Larisa Petrik, and controversially knocked her off the beam top spot altogether, adjusting already called scores to give the gold to Natalia Kuchinskaya.
Both Kuchinskaya and Petrik represented the Soviet Union.
Čáslavská's stated goal for the Games had been to "sweat blood to defeat the invaders' representatives.” Yet, there she was, standing side-by-side on the podium with Petrik. When the Soviet anthem played, Věra turned her her head down and away from its flag.
It was a small gesture. Most people watching hardly noticed. But reprisals were swift. It didn’t matter that Věra was now a seven-time Olympic gold medallist, and the only gymnast, male or female, in the history of the sport to have medaled in every individual event. She was banned from sport by the Soviet authorities. She couldn’t even get work as a coach.
Věra worked as a cleaner for the next 20 years until The Velvet Revolution that brought about the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Only then was Věra Čáslavská welcomed back into society. She died in 2016 and is still remembered by her generation as “The Czech Gymnast Who Defied the Soviet Union” — a champion unwilling to compromise in her desire to live in a free and peaceful society.
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