Věra Čáslavská, Mexico City, 1968
Born in 1942, Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavská dominated gymnastics in the 1960s. She won a total of 22 international titles, including seven Olympic gold medals in individual events, more than any other gymnast. Only Micheal Phelps has won more individual Olympic gold medals.
Two months before this photo was taken, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, ending the temporary political liberalization of Prague Spring. Věra was well known for her support of the democratization movement, as well as her opposition to the Soviet invasion. Her political position endangered her ability to participate in the Mexico City games but at the last minute she was granted permission to travel by the government. Once in Mexico, Věra’s performance was excellent and she won the individual vault, uneven bars, and all around. She initially appeared to win gold in the floor exercise until the judges upgraded the preliminary score of Soviet gymnast Natalia Kuchinskaya, creating a tie. In the end, Věra won three gold medals and two silver medals in Mexico City.
For two individual medal ceremonies, floor and beam, the Soviet anthem played and Věra silently looked down. Her quiet protest of the Soviets led the government to force her retirement from gymnastics and restrict her travel, work and sports participation.
In the late 1980s, pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) led to the Czechoslovakian government granting Věra permission to work as a coach. After the 1989 end of communism in Czechoslovakia, Věra fully entered public life again. She became an advisor to President Václav Havel and Honorary President of the Czech-Japan Association. After leaving the President’s Office, she was elected President of the Czech Olympic Committee and was appointed to the IOC membership committee.
Today, Věra lives quietly in Prague.