Czechs mourn gymnastics great Vera Caslavska


PRAGUE (AP) — Czechs paid on Monday a final farewell to the late Vera Caslavska, a seven-time Olympic gymnastics champion best remembered for her protest against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

At a 90-minute ceremony organized by the Czech Olympic Committee, Czech leaders, including Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, athletes and friends packed the National Theater while the bells of the St. Vitus Cathedral — the country’s biggest and most famous church, one that dates to the 10th century — tolled to honor her.

On the theater’s stage, Caslavska was memorialized through a ballet, a theater performance, a documentary and memories of fellow athletes and friends.

“Vera kept fingers crossed for all Czech athletes till the last moment and from her whole heart,” said Barbora Spotakova, a gold medalist in women’s javelin in the Olympics in 2008 and 2012.

Others were watching the ceremony on a giant screen in front of the theater, which was adorned with a large black-and-white photo of Caslavska. Mourners have been visiting the site since Friday to leave flowers, light candles and offer their condolences.

Caslavska won three gold medals in Tokyo in 1964, establishing herself as a dominant gymnast. She triumphed in four disciplines at the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968.

She engaged in a silent protest against the Soviet invasion. Standing on the top of the medal stand alongside Soviet gymnast Larisa Petrik, with whom she shared the gold in the floor exercise, Caslavska turned her head down and to the right when the Soviet national anthem was played.

The gesture made her the star of the games but at home, she faced persecution from the post-invasion hard-line communist regime.

“She always wanted our society to be better, that everyone has a better life. That’s how I’d like us to remember her,” said Jiri Kejval, the committee’s president.

Caslavska died on Aug. 30 at age 74 after battling cancer of the pancreas.

A private family funeral took place on Thursday, according to Caslavska’s wishes.

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