The battle between the two biggest stars in gymnastics 

In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at Larisa Latynina and Vera Caslavska's battle in artistic gymnastics. 

Picture by © 1964 / Kishimoto/IOC

The background

Many of the world’s greatest gymnasts have come from eastern Europe. In the 50s and 60s, two of the most prominent names in gymnastics were Larisa Latynina of the Soviet Union and Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia.

The two gymnasts had impressive careers, and although Latynina started earlier, their paths crossed at Tokyo 1964, where they starred in one of the most incredible duels in gymnastics history.

At the Melbourne 1956 Games, Latynina won the women’s competition in the combined exercises, vault and floor exercise competitions (tying for first place in the latter). At the Rome 1960 Olympics, she again won gold in the combined and floor exercise.

Caslavska began her career as a figure skater, but at age 15 she turned to gymnastics, first appearing in international competition at the 1958 World Championships, where she won a silver medal in the team event.

She won on the balance beam at the 1959 European Championships and finished a close second to Latynina at the 1962 World Championships. At Rome 1960, she made her Olympic debut winning a silver medal, however, it was four years later when she really shone.

Picture by © 1964 / Comité International Olympique (CIO)

The moment

In Tokyo, spectators were fortunate to see the battle between Latynina - a 30-year-old who had won everything and was in the best shape of her career - and Caslavska - a 26-year-old, who was about to begin her reign.

Expectations were high for Caslavska. She was described as the "Glamour girl of the Olympics", capturing the world’s attention with her grace when competing.

During the competition, results were split. Latynina won gold in the team all-around and floor exercise, silver in the individual all-around and vault - both of which Caslavska won gold in - and bronze in the uneven bars and balance beam. Meanwhile, Caslavska also picked up gold in balance beam and won silver in the team all-around.

While Latynina didn't win the individual all-around competition, her six medals from Tokyo 1964 saw her Olympic medal tally rise to 18, making her, at the time, the most successful Olympian ever in any discipline - male or female.

Picture by © 1964 / Comité International Olympique (CIO)

What happened next?

For 48 years, Latynina held the distinction of having won the most Olympic medals until American swimmer Michael Phelps finally beat the record at London 2012.

However, she is still the only gymnast - male or female - to have won nine Olympic gold medals and the only woman to have won nine Olympic golds.

After she retired from competition in 1966, Latynina didn't stray too far from the sport. She was a national senior coach of the Soviet Union and was active in the planning of the Moscow 1980 Olympics.

Caslavska went on to defend her vault title, while she also won team gold to break the Soviet Union's monopoly in that event and became the all-around world champion at the 1966 World Championships. She also dominated the 1965 and 1967 European Championships, taking all five individual titles and scoring a perfect 10 in 1967.

Prior to the Mexico City 1968 Games, Caslavska lost her training facility due to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. So to train, she swung from branches, lifted sacks of potatoes and practised her beam exercise routine on a log.

Despite her disrupted build-up to the Games, she dominated the gymnastics competition - defending her Olympic all-around title while also winning gold in the floor exercise, uneven bars and vault, as well as two silvers, for the team all-around and balance beam.

After retiring, Caslavska was originally denied a job by Czechoslovakian authorities but was eventually allowed to coach the national gymnastics team. After the collapse of communist rule in 1989, Caslavska became president of the Czechoslovakian Olympic Committee. When the union with Slovakia was dissolved in 1993, she was named president of the Czech Republic Olympic Committee. She was also was a member of the International Olympic Committee (1995–2001). In 1998, she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

Sadly, at the age of 74, she passed away after undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. Caslavska remains the most successful Czech Olympian of all time.


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