Věra Čáslavská remains one of the greatest Olympians of all-time. She is a seven-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time World Champion, and eleven-time European Champion. In 1968, she was named the world’s best athlete and the second most popular woman on the planet after Jacqueline Kennedy. She is the only gymnast, male or female, to have won an Olympic gold medal in each individual event. After the Velvet Revolution, she served as advisor to President Václav Havel, President of the Czech Olympic Committee (1990-1996) and a member of the International Olympic Committee (1995-2001). Called Zlatá Věra (Golden Věra), she won 140 medals, 22 of them gold at the Olympic Games, World and European Championships. In 1991, she was inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1998. Her legacy will be remembered for her athleticism and grace, fight for freedom and democracy, and promotion of an active lifestyle and physical education for youth through the Věra Čáslavská Foundation.
Věra Čáslavská poses with the medals she won at the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968. Photo courtesy of the National Museum in Prague
Born during WWII on May 3, 1942, Věra Časlávska was the last of three daughters, including Hana and Eva. She grew up in the Karlín district of Prague, in an apartment building next to a tram. As a child, the rumbles of the tram frightened her at night, reminding her of the air raids during the war. In 1945, her brother Vašek was born. She often pushed him in a carriage in a park across the street from where her parents worked. Her father ran a small grocery shop, which was seized by the Communists in 1948. Money proved tight at times, but her mother enrolled her and her sisters into language and dance classes, with dreams of them becoming prima ballerinas for the National Theatre. At the age of seven, Věra took up figure skating and even won the Youth Figure Skating Championship in Prague. By the age of 15, she transitioned from figure skating into gymnastics, training with renowned gymnast Eva Bosáková. At 16 years old, she debuted at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in 1958, winning a silver team medal. She gained her first individual gold on the vault at the European Championships the following year. In her gymnastics, she introduced a strong acrobatic style to a sport known for being dance-oriented.
As medals racked up, Věra became more confident and more determined to do better. Learning how to cope with her nerves, she achieved her first Olympic medal in Rome (a silver team medal), but it was not until the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games that she soared to stardom. Leading up to the Games, she bruised her spine, dislocated her fingers, had an inflamed Achilles tendon, and other ailments, but she would not interrupt her training. She had a stubbornness and determination to succeed. At the Tokyo Olympics, she battled for gold with her main competitor 30-year-old Soviet Larisa Latynina. Ultimately, Věra captured four Olympic medals, three gold (all around, vault, and balance beam) and a silver team medal. U.S. Olympic gymnast Muriel Grossfeld described her as a hard worker and a perfectionist. Nicknamed “The Love of Tokyo” and the “Darling of the Olympic Games,” she became so popular that she would dress incognito with a black wig when she would go out in public. Following her triumph at the Olympic Games, she won every women’s gymnastics event at the European Championships in 1965 and 1967. She also helped secure a team victory over the Soviets at the 1966 World Championships.
Věra Časlávská in her Olympic outfit for the Games in Tokyo, 1964.
Photo courtesy of the Czech Olympic Committee
Throughout her life, Věra fought for her extraordinary achievements and moral convictions. After the fall of Communism in 1989, she served as an adviser to President Václav Havel. She also received the United Nation’s Pierre de Coubertin Prize for promoting fair play in 1989 and the Olympic Order. She credited Václav Havel, Pope John Paul II, and the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, for having a great impact on her life. In regards to her gymnastics legacy, U.S. Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner said, “She was one of the most dominant gymnasts of her time, balanced in all the events and completely comparable to someone like Simone Biles.” Her charisma carried with her throughout her life. In 2012, she made a special appearance at the Mexican Open, doing a perfect split at the age of 70, loved by the Mexican audience. Just four years later, she passed away at the age of 74, on August 30, 2016, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. British gymnast Mary Prestidge said to the LA Times following her death, “She was seen to be much more than just a gymnast or a sportsperson... She was going to be champion of the world and not sign away her political allegiance either... bravo!" She remains one of the most celebrated Olympians today.
Photo courtesy of the Czech Olympic Committee