Born in Prague, then capital of Czechoslovakia, Vera Caslavska made her debut at the 1958 World Championships where she won silver with her team. She attended her first Olympic Games in Rome in 1960 where once more she won silver with her team. At the World Championships at home in Prague in 1962 she won silver in the all-around and with her team along with gold on vault and bronze in the floor exercise.
At the Olympics in Tokyo in 1964 she won a historic gold medal in the all-around ahead of Soviet star Larissa Latynina. She also won gold on vault and beam as well as silver with her team. At the 1966 World Championships she made history by taking gold on both the all-around and in the team competition, she also won gold on vault and silver on beam and the floor exercise.
The dominance of Caslavska was also present at Europeans where she took all five gold medals (all-around, vault, bars, beam and floor) both in 1965 and 1967.
In August of 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and Vera who had been clearly outspoken against the Soviets went into hiding in the town of Sumperk in the Jeseniky Mountains.
She was granted a last minute permission to travel to the Olympic Games in Mexico City in October of 1968 and there she became only the second gymnast in history, after Larisa Latynina, to win two consecutive all-around Olympic Titles. In Mexico she also collected gold on vault, bars, and floor and a silver on beam.
Her Olympic participation is remembered for three things.
In the Floor Exercise she used the traditional Mexican music “Hat Dance” which immediately captivated the audience and made her Mexico’s darling.
Then during the Floor Exercise Medal Ceremony, where she shared the gold medal with Soviet Larissa Petrik, she put her head down during the Soviet Anthem in protest.
Finally on a happy note Vera, who at the time was 26 years old, married runner Josef Odložil in Mexico City’s Cathedral an event that made her even more popular with the Mexican audience.
You can watch both events at the beginning of the video “Things you never expected to see at the Olympics”
The couple’s return to Czechoslovakia was not well received as Vera had become a political outcast and her appearances abroad were heavily restricted. In 1979 the Mexican government pressured to have her hired as coach and the government agreed to grant her the permission as they wanted to improve commercial relationships with Mexico. She coached in Mexico for two years.
After the fall of communism in the late 80s her situation improved, however, her personal life suffered a big loss when in 1993 her former husband (Odlozil and Caslavska divorced in 1987) died after an altercation with the couple’s son.
In 2015 news surfaced about Vera being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and on August 30th 2016, 9 days after the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics, the legendary Vera Caslavska passed away at the age of 74 in her hometown of Prague.
Vera, a three-time Olympian, won a total of 11 Olympic medals, 10 World Medals and 13 European Medals. Out of those 34 medals, 22 were gold in a time in which Soviet gymnasts were considered invincible.
Rest in Peace Vera Caslavska (May 3rd 1942 – August 30th 2016)