Vera Caslavska was the heroine of the 1968 Olympics, not because she was the dominant athlete at these games in which she won four gold and two silver medals in gymnastics, and not because she had won 35 medals in the Olympics, World and European championships. Prior to the 1968 Olympic games, the Soviet Union had invaded her native country, Czechoslovakia, and suppressed all dissent. During the games, she was declared the winner in the floor exercises, the Russians protested, and the judges changed the way that the event was scored and decided that she had tied as the winner with Soviet gymnast Larisa Petrik. Then, as the Soviet flag was raised and the band played the Russian national anthem, she turned her head down and to the right. The whole world interpreted this as a silent protest against the Soviet Union's brutal invasion of her country.
Before the games, she was abused by the Soviet invaders. A few months before her spectacular performance at the 1968 Olympics, she signed Ludvik Vaculik’s controversial manifesto, "Two Thousand Words," which criticized the puppet Czechoslovak government set up by the Soviets. This resulted in a brutal purge of those involved and 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 Czechoslovakian national team training camp 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.
A Stellar Athlete
Caslavska began her fabulous athletic career as a figure skater, but at the age of 12 she 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 won 22 international titles between 1959 and 1968, and remains the most decorated Czech gymnast in history, She is one of only two female gymnasts, along with Soviet Larisa Latynina, to win the all-around gold medal at two consecutive Olympics.
Banishment After Winning Six Medals in the 1968 Olympics
After the closing Olympic ceremony in 1968, she married runner and fellow countryman Joseph Odlizil, the 1964 Olympic silver medalist in the 1500 meters. Soon afterwards, they returned home and they had two children, a son, Martin, and daughter, Radka. After winning six medals in that Olympics, you would expect her to return to her country as a national heroine, but her public anti-Soviet display of Czechoslovakian patriotism made her an outcast. The Soviet puppets forced her to retire and for many years she was not allowed to travel, work or attend sporting events. On January 3, 1970, two years after her amazing Olympic performance, she 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. This incredibly courageous Olympic champion refused.
She could not find a job and her marriage fell apart. Her husband remained loyal to the Russian invaders and married another woman, but Caslavska did not remarry. In 1983, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, was told he couldn’t see Caslavska because she was experiencing "family problems." A year later Samaranch returned and insisted on seeing her to present her with the medal of the Olympic Order. The authorities relented, signaling Caslavska’s return to public life. During the 1990s she was President of the Czech Olympic Committee.
The Same Thing Happened to Emil Zatopek
Another national hero in Czechoslovakia, Olympic distance runner Emil Zátopek, also 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, on March 9, 1990, Zátopek was rehabilitated by Václav Havel.
In 1993, Caslavska's son, Martin, got into a fist fight with his father and knocked him to the floor where he hit his head, bled into his brain and died. Martin was convicted of murder and sent to prison. Emil Zatopek signed a petition for the release of Martin Odlozil, and largely because of Zatopek's efforts, Martin was pardoned.
Last Years and Death
At the time of her son's arrest, Caslavska went into a deep depression and was hospitalized at the Bohnice Psychiatric Center. She spent her later years living in Prague, largely secluded from society. In 2015, at age 73, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She died one year later, on August 30, 2016.
Nobody knows what causes pancreatic cancer, and there is no effective treatment. It may be caused by:
• inheriting a cancer gene,
• damaging genes by exposure to cancer-causing agents, or
• genes mutating or changing so that cells do not die in their pre-programmed way.
The five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer patients is less than five percent. About 20 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are candidates for the Whipple surgical procedure which has a 25 percent five-year survival rate. This extensive surgery involves removing the wide part of the pancreas, the first part of the intestines, a portion of the common bile duct, the gallbladder, and sometimes part of the stomach. However, this radical surgery is done only for tumors that are diagnosed when confined to the head of the pancreas and have not spread into nearby blood vessels, the liver, lungs, or abdominal cavity.
May 3, 1942 – August 30, 2016