Blossoming in the Prague Spring : Gymnastics: Vera Caslavska won Olympic medals in 1964 and ‘68, then disappeared because she had signed a paper critical of government. Democracy has given her new stature.
When Soviet tanks rumbled into Wenceslas Square on Aug. 21, 1968, Vera Caslavska was at a camp in Moravia, single-mindedly training to defend the Olympic gold medal she had won for Czechoslovakia four years earlier in Tokyo as the best all-around gymnast.
Less than 24 hours later, she went into hiding. Friends warned that her freedom was in jeopardy because a few months earlier, in the giddy Prague spring, she had signed the Manifesto of 2,000 Words.
The document, drafted by the country’s intelligentsia, appealed to Czechoslovakians to unite against Soviet repression and establish a more-perfect form of Socialism: “Communism with a human face.”
The Soviets preferred tanks. Signers of the manifesto were considered counterrevolutionary.
Caslavska, then 26, fled to the small town of Sumberk in the Jesiniky Mountains, where she took refuge in a friend’s cottage, accompanied only by the caretaker and a cook.
“I was totally isolated for three weeks, but I continued to train,” she said. “While the Soviet gymnasts were already in Mexico City, adjusting to the altitude and the climate, I was hanging from trees, practicing my floor exercise in the meadow in front of the cottage and building callouses on my hands by shoveling coal.
“Then, I went to Mexico and won the gold medal.”
Caslavska said she had not told her story before to journalists, but she is free to speak now because of November’s “velvet” revolution, which brought democracy to Czechoslovakia. With each passing week, more Soviet troops leave. Again, it is spring in Prague.
As an adviser to Vaclav Havel, the poet, playwright and philosopher-turned-president, Caslavska was attending a cocktail party held by the government early this week. Because of her overflowing appointment book, she said that was the only time she could visit with two American reporters who requested interviews.
The party was held in Rudolf’s Gallery, an elegant hall with gold chandeliers and gold carpet in the 12th Century Prague Castle, the home of Bohemian kings and now the seat of government. It is the Prague of Mozart, not Brezhnev.
This is a heady time in Czechoslovakia but also a time of confusion. In his weekly radio address last Sunday, Havel said that the time for euphoria has passed and it is time for hard work so that the new order may prevail.
But what is the new order? Miners marched in the streets of Prague this week. They are not in favor of the former Communist regime, but they sought assurances that they will continue to receive guaranteed employment and inexpensive health care.
Among the lesser of Czechoslovakia’s problems is sports, but, even in that realm, there are uncertainties. The sports federation was dissolved last week. When reorganized later this month, it is expected to be less financially dependent on the government.
Caslavska is 47 and has faint lines around the corners of her eyes. But she looks fit enough to compete. She certainly is energetic enough. Olympic Committee officials have asked her to help lead sports in the country toward a new direction by becoming their president.
But she is an extremely intelligent woman and has other options. She may go to Japan as the ambassador, although Havel would like her to remain in the Prague Castle as an adviser.
“What do you think I should do?” she asked the reporters who were interviewing her.
She is not that accustomed to options.
In the summer of 1968, she was coaxed to come out of the mountains and return to the Olympic team by a government eager to show the world that it was independent of Soviet rule. It could hardly do that by persecuting its best athlete for her anti-Soviet stance.
She was eager to show the world that she was still its premier woman gymnast.
Unfortunately for her, that was four years before American television discovered gymnastics. Caslavska did not become as famous as Olga Korbut in Munich, Nadia Comaneci in Montreal and Mary Lou Retton in Los Angeles, but she was no less brilliant for her time.
In 1964 in Tokyo, as a virtually unknown 22-year-old Prague secretary, she won three gold medals--including one in the all-around competition--and two silvers. In Mexico City, she won four gold medals--repeating her all-around championship--and two silvers.
She won over the Mexico City crowd by performing her floor exercise to the “Mexican Hat Dance.” Because she shared the gold medal in that event with a Soviet, Larissa Petrik, they also shared the top level of the victory podium. During the Soviet national anthem, Caslavska bowed her head and turned away from the flag as it was raised.
The next day, she and Czech 1,500-meter runner Josef Odlozil were married in a civil ceremony at the house of the Czechoslovakian ambassador. Then, as 10,000 Mexicans followed, they went to a Roman Catholic Church for a religious ceremony.
She and Odlozil could have defected but decided against it.
“I had a very strong feeling that I should stay here because I could reinforce the self-esteem of the Czech people,” she said. “On the other hand, it was good that someone like (movie producer) Milos Forman left for abroad and showed the world what Czechs could do.”
When Caslavska returned to Prague, she retired from competition, had a daughter and took some time off before deciding in 1970 that she wanted to coach.
Each Jan. 3 for five years, she went to the office of Antonin Himmel, chairman of the Czechoslovakian Sports Federation, and asked for a coaching position. Each time she was rejected without explanation.
Himmel did not have to give her a reason. She knew that it was because she would not sign a document repudiating her signature on the Manifesto of 2,000 Words.
“They wanted me to say that the Russian invasion was a way of friendly help,” she said.
On Jan. 3, 1975, Caslavska chose a new approach. Dressing for success, it would be called in the United States.
“I dressed myself in an aerobics suit,” she said.
“Sexy,” her interpreter said.
“No, not sexy,” corrected Caslavska, who speaks fluent Spanish and understands a little English. “High to the neck, but very tight.
“I didn’t have a feel for this. I am a quite conservative person. Sometimes I enjoy this kind of joke, but it was very hard for me to dress like this. I really had to look for courage.
“Mr. Himmel measured me with his eyes, and said, ‘Vera, what do you have on? Are you crazy?’
“I said, ‘No, but I was supposed to apply for work on Jan. 3. I’m here, and I am dressed for work. I won’t leave until you give me a team and a gymnasium hall to work.’
“He couldn’t make such a decision alone, so he called his advisers--about 20 men--into the room, all of them staring at me. It was decided I would be given a team.”
Caslavska was not allowed to coach gymnasts on the national team directly, but she was allowed to give advice to those who did coach them. Her role, however, remained largely unknown until two years ago in Czechoslovakia because reporters were forbidden to write or talk about her.
The government’s position toward her began to soften in 1979, when Mexico’s President Portillo invited her to spend time in his country as a sports adviser. Under the circumstances, Czechoslovakia could hardly refuse.
“I don’t want to say I was traded for oil, but . . . “ she said.
She returned to Prague as a coach without portfolio in 1984, when International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch made his first visit to Czechoslovakia. Aware that she and another highly decorated Olympian, distance runner Emil Zatopek, were not in favor with the government because of their support for the Manifesto of 2,000 Words, he asked to meet with them.
“He was told that Emil was ill, and that I had family problems,” Caslavska said. “But he came back the next year and said he wanted to give the Olympic Order to me and Emil. The government agreed. It was the first time I was able to stand up in my country since 1968.”
She was the official choreographer for Czechoslovakia’s women’s gymnastics team at the Seoul Olympics.
She still has her gold medals. Her silver medals she gave to the leaders of the Prague Spring.
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