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A New Love Story : Olga Connolly, Once the World's Darling, Is Giving Something Back

January 31, 1989|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

There was no shortage of drama at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Five countries boycotted, either because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary or the tension in the Middle East over the Suez Canal. Hungarian athletes hauled down their flag in the Olympic Village and tore off the Communist emblem. A water polo encounter between the Soviets and Hungarians had to be stopped because of violence.

Yet, if a movie were made about the 1956 Summer Games, it might well be a romance. Adding a touch of warmth to the Cold War, an American hammer thrower, Harold Connolly, and a Czechoslovakian discus thrower, Olga Fikotova, both gold medalists, met in the Olympic village and became infatuated.

The world was captivated by their story, so much so that the Czech government, despite its objections, could not resist when the dashing Harold charged into Prague a year later, married Olga and carried her back to the United States with him.

The day after the wedding, The New York Times editorialized: "The H-bomb overhangs us like a cloud of doom. The subway during rush hours is almost impossible to endure. But Olga and Harold are in love, and the world does not say no to them."

This, of course, is when the credits begin to roll.

But life goes on.

The Connollys were married for 16 years and had four children before their divorce in 1973.

Harold, 57, who is now married to another Olympian, the former Pat Daniels, recently left his position as assistant principal at Santa Monica High School and moved to Washington, where he works for the Special Olympics.

Olga, 56, who has not remarried, still lives in Culver City in the last house that she shared with Harold.

Olga, Harold and Pat occasionally are invited to functions, where invariably someone refers to Pat as Olga, and the love story becomes one of the main topics of conversation, embarrassing all three.

"We don't want to hear all this nonsense about an Olympic romance," Olga said last week at her home. She was suffering from the beginning stages of laryngitis, but she declined an offer to postpone the interview. She has so much to say. And to write. And to do.

She said that she would rather be remembered as a five-time Olympian, all but the first as a discus thrower for the United States, and as the U.S. flag bearer during the opening ceremony for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

Her teammates elected her to carry the flag over the protests of U.S. Olympic Committee officials, who had considered removing her from the team because of her outspokenness until Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) came to her defense.

The issue of the day then was the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which she opposed. In a New York Times interview, she called upon Richard Nixon to cease the bombing during the Olympics.

After the opening ceremony, a USOC official sarcastically congratulated her for doing such a perfect job of carrying the flag despite her anti-war views.

"In Czechoslovakia, I learned to march," she said.

Causes have changed, but she has not.

She is a feminist and an environmentalist who also speaks passionately about animal rights and youth development. For much of her post-competitive life, she has been involved in the latter as a social worker for various agencies.

Since social work does not pay significantly better than discus throwing, she also tried temporary secretarial work, which indeed was temporary in her case.

"I'm such a lousy typist," she said. "I have a talent for changing things. I'd work for a place for a couple of days, and I'd be saying that they should do things differently. They didn't want to do things differently. They just wanted me to type a letter without a mistake."

In her living room are pictures of her children. Also prominently displayed are some of their athletic awards. Three of the children are actively involved in sports: Mark, 28, as a Golden Gloves boxer in Nevada; Jim, 25, as a decathlete in Los Angeles and Mereja, 25, as a professional volleyball player in Italy.

Another daughter, Nina, 22, a talented singer, married just out of high school and provided Olga with the joy of her life, a grandson, now 2.

But there is only a single picture of Olga on the wall. Wearing Jim's U.S. track uniform, she could pass for one of his teammates in the picture. At 5 feet 11 inches and 138 pounds, she still appears athletic.

She has her arm around a proud young boy. Earlier, he had been despondent after losing in a 100-yard race. But when Connolly discovered that his shoes were too large, preventing him from getting a good start, she arranged for him to have a new pair of sneakers and persuaded the organizers to allow him to run the 440, which he won.

Today, Connolly is the supervisor of preschool and senior citizen programs at San Pedro's Toberman Settlement House, which is funded largely by the United Methodist Church and United Way. Issues affecting seniors are relatively new to her, but she has adopted them as vigorously as her other causes.

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