Caslavska, Vera (1942—)

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Caslavska, Vera (1942—)

Czech gymnast who won four silver and seven Olympic gold medals. Name variations: Caslavska-Odlozil; Čáslavská. Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on May 3, 1942; married Josef Odlozil, a national track champion and Olympic athlete, while she was competing in Mexico City, 1968.

One of the top gymnasts in the world (1960s); won 15 world and European championships; won a silver in all-around team in Rome Olympics (1960); won a silver medal for all-around team and gold medals in balance beam, horse vault, all-around individual in Tokyo (1964); won a silver medal in all-around team and balance beam, gold medals in floor exercises, horse vault, uneven parallel bars, and all-around individual in Mexico City (1968), making her the first woman to win four individual gold medals in a summer Game.

Originally an ice skater before switching to gymnastics, Vera Caslavska burst onto the international gymnastics' scene with a silver medal at the 1958 world championships. For the next six years, Caslavska and Larissa Latynina of the Soviet Union were the top gymnasts in the world.

In 1960, competing in her first Olympics, Caslavska shared a team silver. At the Tokyo Games in 1964, the Czech gymnast won gold medals in all-around (Latynina placed 2nd), side horse vault (Latynina placed 2nd), and balance beam (Latynina placed 3rd) as well as a team silver. The floor exercises went to her rival, Latynina.

Two months before the 1968 Olympics, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, putting an end to the Prague Spring, a brief period during the Cold War when Caslavska's country enjoyed greater political freedom. When the Olympics arrived, Caslavska was determined to be the best gymnast in the world as a symbol of Czech resistance to Soviet dominance. At that Olympic competition in Mexico City, her "Mexican Hat Dance" routine for the floor exercise was wildly popular with the crowd, and she tied for first place with Larissa Petrik (USSR). Sharing the podium and first place with the Soviet, Caslavska bowed her head when the Czech national anthem was played, a grim reminder to a watching world of events taking place in Prague.

The gymnastic star of the Mexico City games, Caslavska took gold medals in the uneven bars, the side horse vault, the floor exercise, and the individual all-around, a title she secured in a close contest with the favorite, another Soviet gymnast, Natalia Kuchinskaya . Caslavska had become the first woman to win four individual gold medals in a summer Game. Later, the gymnast announced that she would present her gold medals to Alexander Dubcek, Ludvik Svoboda, and Oldrich Cernik, Czech leaders who had been ousted after the Soviet occupation. When a hard-line Soviet-backed regime returned to power in Czechoslovakia, Caslavska and her husband, Czech-runner Josef Odlozil, were harassed, humiliated, and repeatedly denied employment.

Karin Loewen Haag , Athens, Georgia