Mexico City in 1968 was brimming, hosting the Olympic games with champions being made every step of the way. And there were many life-changing decisions during this time by athletes taking a stand in the world of politics. Many made their disdain for their government’s decisions known well on the podium. What was the most iconic moment? Well, many would say it was Tommie Smith’s black power salute – but today we are going to talk about something else.
The protest was from Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, which was in regard to the Soviet-led invasion of her country just two weeks earlier. Her protest was more subtle but still noticed, she turned away from the Soviet Union flag which she advised was representing her invaders.
And though the action was very subtle, even understated, not really noticed. The ramifications were immense, as we learned later from another gymnast Mary Prestidge. As part of an exchange program, Prestidge had spent time training with Caslavska to train for the Mexico Games. Caslavska was already a superstar having won multiple gold medals in the Tokyo Olympics of 1964.
But in August 1968 she was forced into hiding due to the Soviet Union led invasion of Czechoslovakia. With the Olympic Games just two months away she should have been training hard in a gymnasium. Instead, she found herself shoveling coal to toughen up her hands and training on a makeshift balance beam. She had to stay in hiding as she was a known figure that spoke out against the Soviet Union.
It didn’t take her long though to show up in the limelight, while most athletes from the Soviet Union found themselves being booed. Caslavska was able to captivate the home audience with a routine that featured Mexican hat dance music.
Of course, this did not sit well with the USSR as they could not have Caslavska standing at the top of the podium better than their athletes. So they paid off the judges, and scores were revised. In the end, Caslavska did win gold medals but she shared first place with Larisa Petrik from the USSR. This meant the USSR flag would be raised also at the same level as the Czech flag.
Unfortunately, the tragedies did not end there for Caslavska who would be forced into retirement when she returned home and put under house arrest. She did not see society again until 20 years later when the Soviet Union collapsed and she was able to start coaching gymnastics.