True Sacrifice: Here's the Athlete That Gave up Everything to Protest
For Colin Kaepernick and his cash-hungry handlers at Nike, this is a real lesson in courage.
At a time when Americans are engaged in what is sadly becoming an annual dispute over NFL millionaires behaving like spoiled children when they should be showing some respect for the country that made their wealth and fame possible, the story is re-emerging of an athlete who truly showed the courage of her convictions.
And ended up paying dearly for it.
The story of Czechoslovakia gymnast Vera Caslavska is told in a long – and remarkably wrong-headed – piece published Wednesday by Politico.
In a nutshell, Caslavska was an Olympic athlete whose stellar performance at the Mexico City Games in 1968 was highlighted by two silent, medal-stand protests in which she turned her head as the Soviet Union’s anthem was played. It made worldwide news at the time, and it cost Caslavska her future in communist-run Czechoslovakia.
The Politico piece — from its snotty summary headline “Turns out Americans don’t mind athletes protesting during a national anthem as long as its someone else’s” to its overall tone — tries to equate the NFL anthem protests of 2018 with Caslavska’s actions a half a century ago and make Americans who honor their anthem look like hypocrites.
But the contrasts couldn’t be more clear. For starters, Caslavska’s protest came at a time when the Soviet Union had led a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush a government that had promised to reform the tyrannical communist system.
After the Aug. 21, 1968, Soviet invasion, Caslavska, a vocal supporter of the reform movement, had fled into hiding where, according to Politico, she “trained in isolated secret in a small town in the Czechoslovakian mountains. Missing standard equipment, she reportedly lifted sacks of potatoes to keep up her strength, shoveled coal to build calluses, practiced her floor exercise in a meadow and solidified her other routines by both swinging from and dancing across tree branches.”
Let’s just say that’s not a background most NFL’s anthem protesters are familiar with.
After getting permission to attend the games from the Czech government at the last minute, Caslavska flew to Mexico City, where as Politico reported, she “won her second straight overall women’s gymnastics title. Next, Caslavska dominated the four individual gymnastics events that followed, but twice found herself the victim of controversial judging decisions.”
Caslavska won a silver medal in the balance beam and finished in a rare tie for first in the floor competition. Both times, of course, the competitors who benefited from the rigged judging were Soviets.
(Readers old enough to remember the Soviet Union might remember how the Eastern Bloc countries routinely played games with Olympics medals in sports with subjective judging. For readers not old enough to remember that, today’s Russian doping scandals aren’t really anything new when it comes to Russian cheating.)
Here’s how Politico described what happened when it came time for the medals:
“In both cases, already enraged over the Soviets’ invasion of her home, Caslavska lashed out on the medal stand where she created a visual image to project her people’s voice. As the Soviet anthem played, Caslavska turned her head to the right and down, away from the raised Soviet flag. Shown widely on television, Caslavska’s defiance caught the attention of the international press, which made clear the gesture represented her disdain for the repressive regime that occupied her country.”
But it’s what happened after that that’s really the lesson here. As Politico puts it:
“The new Soviet-backed government purged dissent from Czechoslovak life and banned Caslavska from all official gymnastics activities and foreign travel. At 26-years old, Caslavska was unlikely to compete much longer, but she had expected to become a coach. Instead, now blackballed by the government, she struggled to make a living over the coming years.”
So, Caslavska used her position in the athletic world to draw attention to a true atrocity – the Soviet invasion of her country. She became internationally renowned. But she also sacrificed her career in sports and made her own life a struggle for decades to follow.
She died in 2016. As The New York Times put it in her obituary:
“The post-Olympic years were difficult. ‘After ascending the summit of Olympus, the journey downward did not exactly follow the well-trodden path,’ Caslavska once said. ‘It consisted of rocks, gorges and a bottomless pit.’
“Along with other Czech athletes, she was investigated by the new government for being an ‘unhealthy influence.’ She was barred from competing and, when she refused to recant her political views, was denied employment as a coach. After 1975, she was allowed to advise the coaches of the national gymnastics team but was not allowed to travel abroad to competitions.”
(Does that sound anything like what multimillionaire Nike spokesman Colin Kaepernick experiencing?)
Fortunately, according to the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, “After years of oppression, Caslavska returned to favor once the ‘Velvet Revolution’ ousted the Communist government in late 1989. Caslavska served as adviser to Czech President Vaclav Havel on matters of health care and welfare, and as President of the Czech National Olympic Committee.”
But that was 20 years after her Olympics protest; two decades of struggle and forced separation from the sport she loved.
Kaepernick first sat for “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the NFL’s pre-season in August 2016. In September 2018, Nike rolled him out as a ludicrously overpaid corporate spokesman, behind the sham advertising theme of: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Vera Caslavska believed in something and really did sacrifice for it.
Kaepernick and his crew of fellow travelers, on the NFL playing fields, in the Nike executive suites, and in every liberal nest of willful obfuscation and hypocrisy in American media today should read her story with honest eyes.
It’s a lesson in courage they might learn from.
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