What serious protest by an athlete looks like

As folks continue to debate Colin Kaepernick’s unwarranted show of contempt for his country, news comes from Prague of the death of Vera Caslavska, a truly heroic athlete-protester. Here is the obituary by Emily Langer in the Washington Post from which this post is drawn.

Caslavska won four gold medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City just two months after the Soviet Union invaded her country. Fearing arrest by the Soviets, she went into hiding in the mountains where she trained for the Olympics.

Caslavska recalled:

I was totally isolated for three weeks, but I continued to train. While the Soviet gymnasts were already in Mexico City, adjusting to the altitude and the climate, I was hanging from trees, practicing my floor exercise in the meadow in front of the cottage and building callouses on my hands by shoveling coal.

She went to Mexico City “determined to sweat blood to defeat the invaders’ representatives.” That would be the Soviet women’s gymnastic team, then the dominant force in the sport.

Caslavska proceeded to win gold for her performances on the uneven bars and vault. She also won gold as the overall champion. She shared gold with a Soviet gymnast in the floor exercise and took silver on the balance beam.

In the events where she was on the podium with a Soviet athlete who won gold, the Soviet anthem was, of course, played. Caslavska responded by bowing her head down and to the right.

Her gesture of protest garnered international praise. Already a hero in Czechoslovakia, she became a legend.

Colin Kaepernick will likely spend this football season making $11.9 million as a backup quarterback. Such is the hardship he must endure as a black man in the racist, oppressive U.S.A.

When Caslavska returned to Czechoslovakia (which she did for patriotic reasons) she was barred from gymnastics and travel. She found work as a housekeeper.

Eventually, thanks to her persistence, the authorities allowed Caslavska to to advise gymnastics coaches, but not to coach athletes herself.

Caslavska never repudiated her opposition to the Soviets or disowned her signature on an anti-Soviet manifesto she had signed. Those who have read The Unbearable Lightness of Being have a sense of the pressure on dissidents to make such moves and the potential consequences of not making them.

After the Velvet Revolution, Caslavska became an adviser to Vaclav Havel. In the 1990s, she served as president of the Czech Republic’s Olympic committee and as member of the International Olympic Committee.

Caslavska’s death reminds us of what real oppression and serious acts of protest by athletes look like.

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