On Monday, October 21, 1968, the women’s compulsories opened the gymnastics competition at the Olympics in Mexico City.
And, as we’ll see, the crowd was very invested in the competition.
Violence and Protest
Days before the Opening Ceremonies, violence erupted during a protest rally in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Afterward, Avery Brundage, the IOC President, would declare that the Olympic Games would go on, adding:
“If the Olympic Games had to be interrupted every time politicians violated the laws of humanity, there would never be international sporting events.”
“Si los Juegos Olímpicos tuvieran que ser interrumpidos cada vez que los políticos violan las leyes de la humanidad, jamás habría encuentros deportivos internacionales.”Informador, Oct. 8, 1968
Sex chromatin testing (buccal smear) was introduced at the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968. The guiding principle was the idea that genetic females (46,XX) show a single X-chromatic mass, whereas males (46,XY) do not.
Here’s what the IOC said just before the start of the 1968 Winter Olympics:
Grenoble, Feb. 4 — The International Olympic Committee today made it clear that any girl refusing to take the sex test would be thrown out of the Olympics.
Prince Alexandre de Merode of Belgium, head of the Olympic Medical Commission, told the IOC today:
“The most modern laboratory methods will be used to determine sex. All examinations will be carried out by means of the saliva test.
The control will be made before the game in such a way to preserve secrecy and embarrassment.”The Yomiuri, Feb. 6, 1968
There are plenty of internet resources that explain why sex testing is problematic.
Reigning World Champions
- Team: Czechoslovakia
- All-Around: Čáslavská
- Vault: Čáslavská
- Bars: Kuchinskaya
- Beam: Kuchinskaya
- Floor: Kuchinskaya
More on the 1966 World Championships here.
Reigning European Champions
- All-Around: Čáslavská
- Vault: Čáslavská
- Bars: Čáslavská
- Beam: Čáslavská
- Floor: Čáslavská
Čáslavská and the Czechoslovak team almost didn’t compete.
- During the Prague Spring, the Dubček attempted to decentralize the economy and loosen restrictions on the media, speech, and travel.
- On June 17, 1968, the intellectuals and artists of Czechoslovakia signed the 2,000 Words manifesto, which showed support for the opening of Czechoslovakia. Čáslavská also signed the document, which made international news.
- Between the night of August 20 and the morning of August 21, 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks entered Czechoslovakia.
- The Soviet Special Forces began arresting the leaders of the Prague Spring.
- At the time, Čáslavská was at a training camp near Šumperk. Scared for her safety, she went into hiding in a remote cabin in the woods. She shoveled coal to keep her calluses and worked out on makeshift apparatuses.
Because of the Soviet occupation, it was unclear if the Czechoslovak team would send a team to the Olympics:
Czechoslovakia hope to send a team of 124 athletes to the Olympic Games in spite of the interruption of their training programmes.
Mr. Alois Sokol, the secretary of the Czechoslovak National Olympic Committee, said today that the psychological inmpact of the events of the past fortnight had made it impossible for the athletes to continue their training.
Sports facilities had been damaged £750,000 had been lost to sports funds because the national lottery had not been held for two weeks; gate money from cancelled athletics matches had been lost and Russian tanks were parked on some sports grounds.The Times, September 5, 1968
Here’s how Čáslavská tells the story in Věra 68:
“We thought the Olympics were over for us. But Comrade Brezhnev [of the Soviet Union] must have had his plan. He decided that instead of staying quietly home, we should go and show the world what good chaps they were. And that was a big mistake — that he let me go.”
In 1968, Romania did not send any gymnasts to the Olympics due to officials’ disappointment with Romania’s results at the 1964 Olympic Games. (The women’s team had dropped from third place in 1960 to sixth place in 1964.)
Our gymnastics representatives would not be in the National Auditorium in Mexico City in 1968, where the competitions of the “Mexican Olympics” took place — a measure taken by the officials of the time who were dissatisfied with the results of the previous Games, this absence being, in fact, the only syncope in the history of participation in the Olympic arena.
Reprezentanții gimnasticii noastre nu se vor afla în Auditorium Nacional din Ciudad de Mexico, în 1968, acolo unde s‑au desfășurat întrecerile „Olimpiadei Mexicane”, măsură luată de oficialii vremii nemulțumiți de rezultatele de la Jocurile anterioare, această absență fiind, de altfel, singura sincopă din istoria participărilor în arena olimpică.Emanuel Fântâneanu, Inscripții pe columna gimnasticii românești
My thought bubble: The Olympics were more than an athletic event. They assumed political significance and helped shape public opinion at home and abroad.
This would have been especially important for Romania in the late 1960s.
- In 1967, Ceauşescu’s government opened diplomatic relations with West Germany, which was frowned upon by the Eastern Bloc.*
- In 1968, Ceauşescu spoke out against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.
In other words, Romania was trying to forge its own path — one that did not neatly align with the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern Bloc. So, Romania carefully selected which athletes would participate in which sports at the Games to ensure a positive image both at home and abroad.
Note: In a column for the Romanian periodical Sportul in 1969, Elena Leușteanu, a three-time Olympic bronze medalist, states that there were diplomatic reasons for not attending:
Our non-participation in gymnastics was actually a discreet gesture and a diplomatic tactic. Discreet gesture – because by not participating we were acknowledging, in a way, that the value of our opponents is higher than ours and would have not suited us to make it official, especially in a competition in which a kind of opinion is developed that can be harmful for us for at least two years, if not four years, before the next Olympic competition. Diplomatic tactic – because although we have genuine assets, recognized even at the “Olympic Hope Competition,” their maturing is planned for the next 3-4 years. I think this is the reason that would suit us best and explain our intention to return to the arena of major competitions only when we have a team that can and knows how to keep and conquer new positions aimed at raising the prestige of our gymnastics.Sportul, March 7, 1969
Neprezentarea noastră la gimnastică a fost de fapt un gest discret și o tactică diplomatică. Gest discret — pentru că prin neparticipare recunoșteam, într-un fel, că valoarea adversarilor este mai bună decît a noastră și acest lucru nu ne-ar fi convenit să-l oficializăm mai ales într-o competiție în care se formează un fel de opinie care ne poate fi dăunătoare cel puțin doi ani înainte, dacă nu patru ani, pînă la viitoarea întrecere olimpică, tactică diplomatică , pentru că deși avem valori autentice, recunoscute chiar la „Concursul speranțelor olimpice“, maturizarea lor este planificată în următorii 3—4 ani. Acesta cred că este motivul care ne-ar prinde cel mai bine și explica de fapt intenția de a reveni în arena marilor concursuri numai atunci cînd vom avea o echipă care să poată și să știe a păstra și cuceri noi poziții menite să ridice prestigiul gimnasticii noastre.
*Interesting historical tidbit: There was a secret agreement between Romania and West Germany for “the payment in Deutsche marks to the Romanian Government of a ‘head tax’ on each German allowed to emigrate [to West Germany]. The sums to be paid by the West German government ranged from 4,000 to 10,000 DM, depending upon the age and professional qualifications of the persons concerned” (Deletant, Ceauşescu and the Securitate).
Coming into the Olympic Games, Kuchinskaya and Voronina were the top gymnasts, having won the USSR Nationals and USSR Cup respectively. You can read more about their performances here.
The Soviet media’s expectation for the women’s team was revenge gold after taking silver in 1966:
A huge responsibility will fall on the shoulders of these girls — to return to our team the title of the strongest, which was lost at the  world championship. Will they handle it?
На плечи этих девочек ляжет огромная ответственность — вернуть нашей команде титул сильнейшей, утерянный на первенстве мира. Справятся ли они с ней?Nedelia, Sept. 1, 1968
- 1968 Code of Points and Apparatus Norms
- Berthe Villancher’s Comments on the 1968 Code of Points
- 1968 Compulsory Routines
The Czechoslovak team and the Soviet team were in the same group (Group B).
Compared to the Czechoslovak team, the Soviet team seemed much more “homogenous.”
The USSR women’s team stood out in the compulsories, closely pursued by Czechoslovakia. While the latter seems to have high-class individuals, the Russians were much more homogeneous, which is why a victory was predicted for them from today.
El equipo femenino de la URSS destacó en las figuras impuestas, perseguido de cerca por Checoslovaquia. Si este último equipo parece poseer individualidades de gran categoría, las rusas se mostraron mucho mas homogéneas, por lo cual se prognosticaba desde hoy una victoria para ellas.Informador, Oct. 22, 1968
The big difference in the Soviet and Czechoslovak scores came on floor (48.10 vs. 47.65)
The deciding moment between the Soviets and Czechoslovaks came on floor exercise where the Russians took a substantial advantage (48.10 against 47.65)
La décision entre Soviétiques et Tchécoslovaques est intervenue aux exercices au sol où les Russes ont pris un avantage substantiel (48,10 contre 47,65).L’Express, Oct. 23, 1968
Compulsory bars got the best of the Czechoslovak and Soviet teams.
Bars proved to be a bit disastrous for the Czech and Russian teams. Although Caslavska did a good compulsory, two girls on the team missed somewhere in their exercises. The Russian team as a whole does not look as strong as the Czechs on Comp.Mademoiselle Gymnast, Nov/Dec 1968
Kuchinskaya fell on compulsory bars, impacting her all-around placement.
But the surprise of the entire meet came when Kuchinskaya fell off comp. bars on the 1/2 turn squat. This of course knocked her out of the battle for all-around with Caslavska and placed her teammates Voronina and Petrik in the running.Mademoiselle Gymnast, Nov/Dec 1968
Reminder: At previous Olympic Games and World Championships, Kuchinskaya could have repeated her compulsory bars. But the 1968 Code of Points eliminated do-overs for compulsory routines. As a result of her mistake, she was tied for 11th in the all-around after compulsories.
East Germany looked strong on compulsory bars.
E. Germany had good bars. They stylized the sole circle 1/2 turn well in the comp. By thrusting the arms slightly sideward before recatching the high bar.Mademoiselle Gymnast, Nov/Dec 1968
The Mexican team made a meritorious demonstration, but their score was the lowest. The two most outstanding of the group were Maria Luisa Moral, who surpassed eight points in uneven bars and floor exercise, the same as Juliet Sáenz.
El equipo mexicano hizo una demostración meritoria, pero su puntuación fue de lo más baja siendo las dos más destacadas del grupo, Maria Luisa Moral, quien sobrepasó los ocho puntos en barras asimétricas y manos libres, lo mismo que Juliet Sáenz.Informador, Oct. 22, 1968
Cathy Rigby captivated the audience on floor exercise. As one article put it, she was “adopted by the Mexican spectators.”
The attraction of Group C was the young American Cathy Rigby, who is not yet 16, whose young talent has proven to be very effective, especially on the floor exercise. She is certainly not in a position to run for a medal, but we can already foresee that she will further improve her ranking on floor exercise. In any case, the young American was adopted by Mexican spectators.
L’attraction de groupe C a été la jeune Américaine Cathy Rigby, qui n’a pas encore 16 ans, dont le jeune talent s’est révélé très efficace, notamment aux exercices au sol. Elle n’est, certes, pas à même de briguer une médaille mais on peut, d’ores et déjà, prévoir qu’elle améliorera encore ses positions dans les exercices libres. En tout cas, la jeune Américaine a été adoptée par les spectateurs mexicains.L’Express, Oct. 23, 1968
The crowd got excited about the compulsory vault, specifically Čáslavská’s.
The Czech was first by almost perfectly dominating the vault for a score of 9.90; which earned her the thunderous applause of thousands of attendees at the National Auditorium, where these competitions are held.
La checa quedó primera al dominar casi perfectamente el salto de caballo para una puntuación de 9.90; lo que le valió el estruendoso aplauso de miles de asistentes al Auditorio Nacional donde se celebran estas competencias.Informador, Oct. 22, 1968
And the audience members were not too pleased with Čáslavská’s beam and floor scores.
The announcement of her results on beam (9.65) and floor exercise (9.70) was loudly hissed by the audience.
L’annonce de ses résultats à ta poutre (9,65) et aux exercices au sol (9,70) fut copieusement sifflée par le public.L’Express, Oct. 23, 1968
The Vice President of the Women’s Technical Committee wrote an article for Olympische Turnkunst after the 1968 Olympic Games. You can read Valerie Nagy’s report here.
Coincidentally, the crowd booed Čáslavská‘s scores on the events where there were Soviet judges (beam and floor).
According to the work plan, here were the judging assignments for women’s compulsories. Note: These assignments could have changed on site.
Superior Judge: Andreina Gotta (ITA)
Carin Delden (SWE)
Ingeborg Hermann (GDR)
Hana Vláčilová (Bobková TCH)
Socorro Nieto (MEX)
Superior Judge: Kathe Wiesenberger (AUT)
Meinhild Hierling (ALE)
Radka Pentscheva (BUL)
Fay Weiler (CAN)
Alena Tintěrová (TCH)
Superior Judge: Valerie Nagy (HUN)
Ligia Gamboa (MEX)
Larisa Latynina (URS)
Dale Flansaas (USA)
Janina Skirlińska (POL)
Superior Judge: Taissia Demidenko (URS)
Michèle Thiébault (FRA)
Chiba Ginko (JPN)
Lilia Wong (CUB)
Éva Romák (HUN)
(Many thanks to Hardy Fink for supplying the judging assignments.)
Can you spot the conflicts of interest?
Even if you aren’t a gymnastics history buff, one name will stand out to you: Larisa Latynina.
For starters: Latynina was Věra Čáslavská’s direct competition for years, and she judged Čáslavská at the 1968 Olympics.
That would be like living in a world where Aliya Mustafina judged Simone Biles at the Olympics in 2021.
But that’s not all: Latynina was a competitor at the 1966 World Championships, which meant that she was judging her former teammates two years later. (Dale Flansaas had also competed at the 1966 World Championships.)
That would be like living in a world where Aliya Mustafina judged Melnikova, and Aly Raisman judged Simone Biles at the Olympics in 2021.
Oh, and it gets even more problematic: Latynina was the current Soviet head coach, so she judged the gymnasts she was coaching.
That would be like Valentina Rodionenko (current Russian head coach) or Tom Forster (current U.S. High-Performance Team Coordinator) judging at the Olympics in 2021.
Bottom line: For all we know, Latynina gave all the gymnasts fair scores. But that’s not the problem. Regardless of how Latynina scored the routines, there was a glaring conflict of interest on the judging panel.
Note: I am not blaming Latynina. If the FIG allowed a national team head coach to be a judge, that’s an FIG problem — not a Latynina problem.
Another conflict of interest
As for floor exercise, Demidenko, the superior judge on the event, was part of the Women’s Technical Committee. Prior to Latynina’s retirement as a competitor, Demidenko was the head coach of the women’s Soviet gymnastics team. In other words, she was judging gymnasts whom she coached just a couple of years prior to the Olympics.
That would be like Márta Károlyi (former U.S. National Team Coordinator) judging at the Olympics in 2021.
Indeed, it was a different time at the FIG.
All-Around Standings – Top 11
|1. Soviet Union||191.15|
|3. East Germany||189.40|
|5. United States||185.70|
|8. West Germany||177.95|