This day marks the birth of one of the greatest ever Olympic gymnasts.
Vĕra Čáslavská was born in Prague in what was the Czechoslovakia in 1942 and she would become one of only two female gymnasts (the other being Larisa Latynina) to win the individual all-round gold medal at successive Olympic Games.
In total, Vĕra won seven Olympic titles and she has the dinstinction of being the only gymnast to win a gold medal in every individual event (floor, vault, beam and asymmetric [or uneven] bars).
Three of her golds came in Tokyo in 1964, the others in Mexico City four years later. However, in April 1968, just months before the Olympic Games were due to take place, Čáslavská joined hundreds of other prominent Czechs in signing the “Manifesto of 2000 Words”, essentially a document defying Russian intervention in post-war Czechoslovakia.
When Russian tanks rumbled into Prague just weeks later, those signatories were deemed to be criminals and were tracked down... Vĕra was not going to be hard to find; she was training with the rest of the gymnastic squad in Moravia, but a friend warned her that imprisonment beckoned if she was caught and so Vĕra escaped to a tiny town called Šumperk, hidden away in the Jeseniky Mountains.
She stayed there for three weeks, unable to train properly, whilst her Russian rivals were already getting used to the Mexican heat and altitude. She eventually flew to Mexico but had virtually no time to acclimatise. To make matters worse, two hugely controversial judging decisions resulted in an outright gold medal being shared with Russian gymnast Larisa Petrik, whose scores were mysteriously upgraded and despite what looked like a winning performance on the beam, the judges contrived to hand the gold medal to another Russian, Natalia Kuchinskaya.
The Czech gymnast simply bowed her head and turned away during the playing of the Russian national anthem...
Despite being idolised by her countrymen for her sporting ability and political stance, Vĕra Čáslavská was effectively forced into retirement after the Soviet-led invasion, by being barred from travelling abroad or taking part in any gymnastic events even in her homeland. Incredibly, she was effectively shunned by the authorities for nearly two decades, but eventually, due to intervention by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and the subsequent fall of Communism, one of the finest gymnast the world has ever seen was finally allowed to coach the sport in which she excelled.
Seventy today and living a life away from the limelight in her native Prague, Vĕra Čáslavská is a timely reminder, in this Olympic year, of the occasionally uneasy alliance between sport and politics.
All my own work... almost.