Thursday, January 31, 2013

Politics, Sports, and Vera Caslavska

I just returned from a taping of W. Kamau Bell's FX show, Totally Biased (if you haven't heard of him, look up the show and his standup--he's hilarious), where his guest was Dave Zirin, a sports writer who focuses on the intersection of athletics, culture and politics. Zirin cited past figures such as Mohammed Ali, who famously dodged the Vietnam draft, and Billie Jean King who played in "The Battle of the Sexes," as sports icons who played a part in the cultural/political landscape.

As I watched this interview, I thought back to Faster, Higher, Stronger the BBC documentary about Olympic gymnastics that I watched last week and the story of Vera Caslavska.

As many gym fans know, Caslavska was a star from Czechoslovakia in the 60s who deposed the Soviets. But as the documentary shows, she was an adult (this was four years before Olga Korbut forever changed the age and stature of female gymnasts) who was not easily pushed around. She had supported a reformer that the Soviets opposed and had to go into hiding after the USSR invaded her country. And at the 1968 Olympic Games, the Soviets used its influence to keep Caslavska from winning the gold outright. Instead, she "tied" with a Soviet gymnast.

As the Soviet national anthem played, Caslavska looked down and away as a protest.



(The protest happens around 17:07.)

As I watched this documentary, I was moved. Typically, gymnasts are pawns, not agents and actors in global political dramas. Olga Korbut was flown around the globe as part of the Soviet propaganda machine. Chinese gymnasts have their ages falsified so they can compete younger and I doubt it is their idea to do so. But in Caslvaska, you have an adult with political beliefs who stands up for them in a public (albeit subtle) way, and unfortunately pays a hefty price for this.

And that is one of the potential benefits to having gymnasts compete older. I don't necessarily believe an older gymnast is more artistic. But I would like to see what grown ups with their own beliefs are able to accomplish using the cultural platform that sports affords them.

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