Čáslavská reigns supreme again with four gymnastics golds

While the men were producing performances of great calibre, there was no doubting the star gymnast of these Games, because she was probably also the most popular female athlete. She may not have been Mexican, but Věra Čáslavská, the Czech gymnast, became a global star on the back of the 1968 Olympics.

Čáslavská was hardly an unknown. She was the defending all-around champion, having won three gold medals in the Tokyo Games four years before.The previous year, she had secured two perfect tens at the European Championships, and she was on her way to a historic achievement of winning each major all-around title from one Olympic Games, through World Championships and European Championships, and on to the next Olympics. No other female gymnast, before or since, has managed that.

The world knew that Čáslavská was a supreme athlete. What made her success and appearances in Mexico so much more dramatic was the backdrop – what was happening in her country at the time.

For, just two months before the Games, Soviet tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia. Having campaigned against Soviet involvement in her country, she was fearful of arrest and went into hiding for three weeks, keeping fit by lifting sacks of potatoes. Finally, the government assured her she could indeed join the rest of the team in Mexico.

She emerged to win four gold medals, two silvers and the adoration of the Mexican crowd. They gave her a succession of standing ovations, and she responded by using the Mexican Hat Dance as the music for one of her routines. Amid all that success, she retained her all-around title – becoming the first woman to do so.What's more, she got married in Mexico City just 24 hours after ending her competition. Her husband was the Czech 1500m champion Josef Odlozil and a crowd of 10,000 turned up to wish them well.

Her success, though, did not win her favour with the Soviet authorities, who refused to give Čáslavská a job, despite her achievements. Years later, she returned to Mexico as coach of the country's athletics team, a move the government agreed to only to foster good relations.

Upon the fall of the Communist regime, Čáslavská became president of the Czech National Olympic Committee. She was voted the country's second greatest athlete, beaten only by Emil Zatopek.


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