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Vera Caslavska: Marriage of Two Great Olympic Athletes

If you are envious of great athletes, read the true story of what happened when two Olympic athletes married. Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia (born May 3, 1942) won 35 medals, (including 22 gold) at the Olympic Games and at world and European championships. She was the dominant athlete of the 1968 Olympics when she won four gold and two silver medals in gymnastics. Right after the closing Olympic ceremony in 1968, she married Joseph Odlizil from Czechoslovakia, the 1964 Olympic silver medalist in the 1500 meters. Soon afterwards, they had a child, Martin.

Thirty years later, in 1997, President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia granted a pardon to Martin Odlozil, the child of this marriage. Martin Odlozil had been sentenced to four years in prison in 1993 for causing injuries during a fight that resulted in the death of his father, Joseph Odlizil.

SUPPORT FROM EMIL ZATOPEK: Four-time Olympic gold medalist Emil Zatopek, arguably the greatest distance runner ever, signed a petition for the release of Martin Odlozil. One of my greatest heroes, Emil Zatopek spent a part of his life cleaning the streets of Prague for criticizing the Soviet Union for invading Czechoslovakia.

At the time of the pardon of Martin Odlizil, his mother, Vera Caslavska, was hospitalized at the Bohnice Psychiatric Center for depression brought on by the horrific Soviet abuse.

THE ATHLETIC CAREER OF CASLAVSKA: Vera Caslavska began her fabulous athletic career as a figure skater, but at the age of 12 turned to gymnastics and placed first overall in gymnastics at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. She also took gold medals in the beam and the vault. In the 1965 and 1967 world championships she won every gymnastic event. She closed her career spectacularly at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, winning gold medals in the combined exercises and the uneven bars, the floor exercise, and the vault. She also won a silver medal in the balance beam and shared a team silver.

It would seem that Caslavska would retire in glory, but the Russians made life very difficult for the people of Czechoslovakia. Prior to the Olympics, Russia invaded Czechoslovakia and made it a puppet state.

Prominent citizens who had spoken out against Soviet tyranny were put in prison and even killed. In fear of such a fate, Caslavska left the national team to hide in the small town of Sumperk. As the Mexico City Games approached she was able to rejoin her teammates by special permission of the Czech government.

BRAVERY BEYOND BELIEF: Just before her spectacular performance at the 1968 Olympics, she signed Ludvik Vaculik’s controversial manifesto, “Two Thousand Words.” Part of the Prague Spring, the work criticized the puppet Czechoslovak government.

At the 1968 Olympic awards ceremony for floor exercises, Caslavska staged her own quiet but effective protest. She had really won the gold medal in the floor exercise, but a late-scoring change created a tie between her and Soviet gymnast Larisa Petrik. As the Soviet flag was raised and the Russian national anthem was being played, she turned her head down and to the right. This pubic protest was picked up by virtually every press report in the free world.

Caslavska became the heroine of the 1968 Olympics, but her public anti-Soviet display of Czechoslovakian patriotism made her an outcast upon her return to her country, which was still under Soviet influence.

CRUELTY BEYOND BELIEF: When Caslavska arrived home after the Olympic games in 1968, she learned that her criticism of the Soviet Union would not go unpunished. She could not find a job, she had two children and her marriage fell apart. Her husband remained loyal to the Russian invaders, and married another woman. Vera Caslavska did not remarry, choosing to take care of her two children from her marriage to the famous Czech distance runner.

On January 3, 1970, Caslavska applied for a job with the Czechoslovakian national gymnastics team. She was told by authorities, “Come back next year, this is not a suitable time.” For five consecutive years, on every January 3, she appeared in the same office, asking for the same job and was told that she would get a job only if she claimed to never have signed the manifesto against Russia. CASLAVSKA REFUSED. During a 1984 visit, Olympic president Juan Antonio Samaranch was told he couldn’t see Caslavska because she was experiencing “family problems.” A year later Samaranch returned and insisted on seeing Vera to present her with the Olympic Order. The authorities relented, signaling Caslavska’s return to public life.

VERA CASLAVSKA TODAY: Today, her health has declined making travel and public appearances difficult. She lives with her two children, Martin and Radka, in Prague.

ZATOPEK’S BRAVERY: An incredible hero in Czechoslovakia, Zátopek spoke out against the invading Soviet army. After the 1968 Prague Spring invasion, he was fired from his government leadership job and expelled from the army and the Communist Party. The world’s greatest distance runner was forced to work in a uranium mine, and had to collect garbage, clean streets, and dig wells. Twenty-two years later, March 9,1990, Zátopek was rehabilitated by Václav Havel.

MY PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT: One of my very close friends, the late Hal Connolly, won the Olympic Hammer throw in 1956 and was on four United States Olympic teams. He went to Boston College but trained at Harvard where I first met him when I was an undergraduate. In later life, he and his lovely wife, Pat Winslow Connolly, were our close friends. They rode a tandem bicycle and went to many social events with us. Pat Connolly was a three time United States Olympian (1960, 1964, 1968), the U.S. track and field national champion in the women’s 800 meters in 1960 and 1961 and in the women’s pentathlon from 1961 to 1967 and in 1970. She won the gold medal in the women’s pentathlon at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada. She also coached UCLA to national championships and Evelyn Ashford to the world record for women in the 100m of 10.76 seconds.

EMIL ZATOPEK AND HAL CONNOLLY: Emil and his wife Dana were instrumental in the marriage of Hal Connolly to his first wife, Olympic javelin gold medalist, Olga Fikotová, in Prague in 1957. Emil had spoken to the Czechoslovakian president Antonín Zápotocký to request help in getting a permit for Czechoslovakian national heroine, Olga, to marry the American, Hal Connolly at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

February 17th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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