Czech gymnast Caslavska, Olympic great and anti-Soviet icon, dies at 74

Wed Aug 31, 2016 1:03pm EDT
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By Jan Lopatka and Jason Hovet

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, her country's greatest Olympian and a powerful voice in its struggle against Soviet occupation, has died aged 74 of pancreatic cancer.

One of only two women to win back-to-back gold medals as best all-round gymnast, Caslavska took seven golds in all at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and the 1968 Games in Mexico City.

In the latter she competed against and beat Soviet athletes just weeks after Warsaw Pact tanks led by the Red Army swept into then Czechoslovakia to put down attempts to reform Communist rule.

"We went to Mexico determined to sweat blood to defeat the invaders' representatives," she told news website in a 2014 interview.

A lasting memory of those games is Caslavska's silent protest of bowing her head on the podium when the Soviet anthem played - echoing the more celebrated image of U.S. sprinter Tommie Smith's Black Power salute in solidarity with African American civil rights.

"Vera was a fighter. She was diagnosed last year in the spring," said Czech Olympic Committee President Jiri Kejval, who announced her death.

"When she did not come with us to (the) Rio (Games) it was clear the situation was bad," he told Reuters by telephone, adding Caslavska had died in her sleep.

Caslavska's other medals included back-to-back golds in the vault in the 1964 and 1968 games. She also won the beam in 1964 and the uneven bars and floor exercise in 1968.   Continued...