Martina Navratilova competes in charity tennis event benefiting the Elton John AIDS Foundation at Caesars Palace on October 10, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a college student on a trip to Czechoslovakia, I gained a sense of economic life in a communist country. Desperate for hard currency, the Czech government would not let foreigners change Czech currency back into dollars at the conclusion of a trip. Since the currency was worthless outside the country, I had no choice but to spend the rest of my money on something.
I flew to London for a short stay before heading back to the United States and walked up to British passport control holding a giant stuffed teddy bear. The armed British guard looked at me quizzically.
“I brought the bear from Czechoslovakia,” I said.
“Another free bear,” said the guard and let me pass.
While my bear was free and I could go on with my life, people who lived in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, even elite athletes, faced difficult choices. One of those elite athletes was Martina Navratilova.
One might think that a tennis star like Navratilova could enjoy the fruits of her labor. Maybe today but not in the Czechoslovakia of the 1970s. Navratilova couldn’t help but notice that authorities gave her family’s country estate to the Soviet Union following World War II, while she and her parents had to live in a one-room apartment.
“The [Czech tennis] federation took all of her prize money when she was a teenager,” writes Steve Tignor of TENNIS Magazine.
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Tignor notes that Navratilova began 1975 by beating Chris Evert and later placing second in the Australian open. She had already been disciplined by the government’s tennis federation for staying an extra week after a tournament and she feared further restrictions on her freedom.
Martina and her family planned to defect during Wimbledon in London but changed their minds. That set the stage for what happened at the U.S. Open later that year.
Authorities at first balked at Martina’s pleadings to play in the U.S. Open. “They said I was too Americanized and socialized too much with the American players,” she told an interviewer for ESPN.
Finally, Czech authorities decided to let her travel to America for the tournament. That set her plans in motion. “I talked to my father and I said, ‘I think I want to stay there.’ He said, ‘I was going to tell you the same thing. But if you do, don’t come back no matter what I tell you on the phone because we may have a gun to our heads.’”
After a match with Chris Evert, Martina’s manager contacted the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and she filled out paperwork asking for asylum. After word of her defection leaked to the media, Martina held a press conference at the site of the U.S. Open, hoping that would prevent any attempt by Czech authorities to “snatch” her back, in the words of her manager.
“Traveling with FBI protection, Navratilova received standing ovations at her next two tournaments, in Atlanta and Charlotte,” notes Tignor. “That fall in Denver, Czech authorities sent her former Fed Cup coach, Vera Sukova, to try to convince her to come back. She declined, and went on to win the tournament.”
At 18, Martina Navratilova was free. She went on to win 59 Grand Slam crowns and holds the record as a 9-time singles champion at Wimbledon. In 1981, she became one of the most high-profile celebrities to come out as gay and to advocate for gay rights.
At the press conference announcing her defection to the United States, Navratilova looked at the cameras and said, “I wanted my freedom.”
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