Final farewells were paid to the great gymnast Věra Čáslavská at Prague’s National Theatre on Monday. Athletes from across the generations, ministers and other notable figures from Czech public life expressed their respect for the nation’s most successful Olympian, who passed away two weeks ago at the age of 74.
Czech sports stars of past and present rubbed shoulders with cabinet members and well-known faces from the arts sphere.
Věra Čáslavská held the national record for Olympic gold medals with seven, three from Tokyo in 1964 and four from Mexico in 1968.
Among those who paid tribute to her from the stage of the National Theatre were a number of other, in the main more recent, Czech Olympic champions.
One of them, Barbora Špotáková, recalled her first encounter with the legendary gymnast at an awards ceremony, a year after Špotáková’s triumph in Beijing in 2008.
“Věra – a hurricane – sidled up to me and said, Hi, I’m Věra and we’re going to address one another informally. At first I just wasn’t able to – such was my enormous admiration for her. But later her warmth, her optimism and her sense of humour disarmed me and I got used to it.”
Čáslavská had protested against the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, a move which came at some personal cost in communist Czechoslovakia.
After 1989 she returned to public life, among other activities serving as an adviser to President Vacláv Havel.
Havel’s one-time press spokesman Michael Žantovský told the crowd that Čáslavská had rather stood out among the former dissidents at Prague Castle in the early 1990s.
“We called her ‘the arrow’ because she went into everything without hesitation and headfirst. Her vocabulary didn’t include the words ‘impossible’ or ‘late’… At several of the presidential team’s workshops focused on the issues of the day at Lány, she forced us to do warm-up exercises in the morning, without any regard for protesting rheumatic joints or smokers’ lungs.”
On a more serious note, Czech Olympic Committee chief Jiří Kejval said Věra Čáslavská didn’t just have time for the top, headline-grabbing athletes of today.
“She was also interested in little-known sportspeople. She was interested in everything that was going on and never turned down an invitation to a get-together. Even when her health was bad towards the end, she attended hundreds a year… She fought for increased funding for sport. She always fought for things that didn’t concern her directly but which concerned our society.”
The final speaker was the great gymnast’s friend, the documentary maker Olga Sommerová.
“Beautiful, courageous, a fighter, Věra Čáslavská was one of the bravest women of the 20th century. She was a genuine national hero who never bowed down to anybody.”