For Czech Athletes, the Door to Future
May Have Two Entrances
By Gerald Eskenazi
New York Times, August 2, 1992 Sitting under a red canopy, wearing a brightly colored dress, the head of the Czechoslovak Olympic Committee, Vera Caslavska, seemed unperturbed.
But this former gold-medal gymnast, who once denounced the Soviet invasion of her country and found herself a forgotten person, is troubled again. For Caslavska (pronounced Chas-LUV-skuh) conceded that she may be presiding over the breakup of her country's Olympic movement.
Inside the athletes' village, life seemed so serene. Some athletes pedaled their streamlined bikes over the wide street, others sailed in the bay.
Elsewhere, one of the Czechoslovak table-tennis players had won a match. The gymnasts were performing. But back home, Caslavska said, people wonder about the future. On Sept. 30, the country is scheduled to be divided into Czech and Slovak republics.
"There are signs the country will be split," Caslavska said through an interpreter. "This will have an influence on sport, but not a positive one. I'm pessimistic it will not create positive conditions."
Caslavska had spoken to the athletes when they arrived in Barcelona about how to keep their minds on the Summer Games.
"I'm an athlete first, so I can do it," she said.
She did not tell them about her own time and the politics of another era. But most know that in 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, Caslavska captured four gold medals and two silver (after having won three gold and two silver in 1964) in women's gymnastics, including the all-around title. Twenty-four hours later, she made more news by marrying her countryman Josef Odlozil, a 1,500-meter runner, at a Roman Catholic church in Xocalo Square.
But it was Caslavska's decision the preceding spring to sign "The Declaration of 2,000 Words," a sort of anti-Russian manifesto denouncing the Soviet entry into Czechoslovakia in 1968 that made her a national heroine and the focus of Government scrutiny.
"People who signed that had problems," said her interpreter, Jan Neubauer, the assistant head of the Czechoslovak Olympic mission. "For five years, she had no job."
So Caslavska worked as a coach in Mexico. She said the Mexican authorities forced the Czechoslovak Government to let her go by threatening to withhold oil exports.
"She finally got work as a researcher," said Neubauer, who learned English from his Ohio-born mother. "Then six years ago, Juan Antonio Samaranch came to Czechoslovakia and said he was bringing an Olympic necklace for her to wear and one for Emil Zatopek, who also was in trouble with the authorities. The Government was forced to recognize her."
Samaranch is the president of the International Olympic Committee.
Within a few years, Caslavska became head of the Czechoslovak Olympic committee. But when Communism fell, so did its major source of financing: the government.
Now there is a market economy involving the country's Olympic future, said another official, Jan Hrdina.
"In sports we're saying it's a market economy now," Hrdina said. "It depends on the results from the Olympics to determine how much money we will have."
Under Neubauer, who imports medical supplies, the team has become increasingly financed the old-fashioned American way: through corporate sponsors. He has been asking the advice of United States Olympic Committee marketing officials and has made deals with several companies to contribute to his country's team.
But since Caslavska's time, the Czechoslovaks have won little. Through the first weekend of these Games, they had won three medals here, a gold in the men's single slalom canoe, a silver and a bronze. In 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, they won two medals, a silver and a bronze.
"Caslavska's total in '68 would be good enough for the whole team today," said Neubauer, enjoying his joke.
And how are the country's 211 athletes, equally divided between the more affluent Czech half and Slovakia, holding up? Does the political division affect them?
"I tell you exactly we have no problem with the Czech and Slovak sportsmen," said Lumir Propper, a press attache. "We are not Yugoslavia. Maybe this is the last time as a Czechoslovak team. Maybe next time there will be a Czech team and a Slovak team."
Harder times may lie ahead, away from the playing fields, outside the community of athletes. That problem, said a radio commentator, Stanislav Scepan, "has created less interest in sport, I'm afraid, because people are thinking of politics."
Caslavska, who has seen her country in upheaval before, demonstrated her own philosophy when she was asked to wrire her name. She did it this way: "Cas[heart]ska."
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