10 May 2011

Věra Čáslavská

I promised to do Female Gymnasts to complete the highlight of gymnastics.  It's here.  The reason I chose Věra is because as I watched a video about the development of the uneven bars, I was enamored with her hair and leotard.  Lucky for me, she turned out to be Czech.  But honestly, look at that coiffure!  It's phenomenal!  Granted, gymnastics wasn't as acrobatic in 1968, but it's lovely.  I did notice that USSR gymnast Larisa Petrik had the same 'do, but I saw Věra first.  The leotard looks like a navy uniform with the cute little lapel detail (see videos linked below).  I want to eat her up.

Vera's story is actually quite sad.  As the 1968 Olympics took place, Czechoslovakia was in a tough spot.  Czechoslovakia around 1968 was trying to revitalize communism and give it a human face.  The USSR had illusions about making communism work in Czechoslovakia, unlike Poland, and the USSR finally had enough "humanizing" and decided to crack down, i.e. invade.  She signed a famous protest manifesto called "Two Thousand Words" and this caused her to go into hiding until the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.  She was granted permission to travel at the last moment, but as the Games progressed, it was apparent that politics tainted her medal standings.  She was cheated out of two gold medals on the beam and floor exercise in favor of USSR gymnasts.  Upset by this tragic turn of events, when the USSR anthem was played, she simply looked down and to the right.  While not a particularly obvious sign of disrespect, it got the message across to Moscow.  She was unable to travel, compete in or watch any athletic event, or work and became a persona non grata.

BUT she does have the record for most individual titles for a gymnast.  She's the only gymnast who's medaled in all individual apparatuses.  40 plus years and no one has done that.  She did get to work as a coach in Mexico, but only after the country threatened an oil embargo.  Later, she was presented with the Olympic Order and was able to work as a judge and coach in her home country.  Her life changed dramatically as soon as the USSR imploded: she became famous dissident turned president Václav Havel's advisor and Honorary President of the Czech-Japan Association.  Soon, she was promoted to the IOC membership committee.

Let us not forget that she started out as a figure skater.  I don't think figure skating really figures into gymnastics, so it's a pretty difficult switch.  As I watched several of her routines, I realized how much ballet was a part of floor exercise.  I watched it and thought, "Is this a ballet competition?"  There was very little in the way of acrobatics (the double salto with a full twist was introduced by Mukhina almost a decade later) and it was mostly dance and doing the splits.  I have to admit, sometimes I think the dance part is completely neglected on the floor exercise, so it's nice to see it done with such aplomb.  Her balance beam routine was also ballet like with very little acrobatics.  Vault was similarly simplistic acrobatically, but she still rocked it solid gold.

Her whole story shows that she's one badass woman.  She defied the USSR, which controlled her country, when the whole world shook in their boots at the thought.  No one tried not to provoke the red beast, but Čáslavská just looked down and away on the international stage.  Take that.