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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Heart Of Gold

Olga Connolly, Czech Expatriate Who Met Future Husband at '56 Games in Melbourne, Embodies Olympic Spirit Through Her Humanitarian Endeavors

September 16, 2000|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

SYDNEY, Australia — When they held the Spectacle of Sydney here Friday night, the sensational opening ceremony that began an Olympic Games in Australia for only the second time, a woman in Newport Beach was 7,500 miles away from where she should have been.

Which was right here, shoulder to shoulder with the 109,999 other people in Olympic Stadium, whose collective outpouring, at an event so awesome that it almost defied description, told the watching world: "G'day, mates."

In 1956, when Australia hosted its only other Summer Games, in Melbourne, Olga Fikotova was a wide-eyed, 23-year-old from Czechoslovakia, who set the Olympic world on its ear. She wasn't even the best discus thrower in Europe back then, but she went to Melbourne, stole the gold medal with a throw that was seven feet better than her previous best, and stole the heart of American Harold Connolly, who won the gold in the hammer throw.

Theirs was a romance that would have played big in Hollywood, but it was larger than that. It was a story for the world: Young woman from behind the iron curtain overcomes 10-foot-tall barbed wire fence separating the men and women in the Melbourne Olympic village, meets and falls in love with handsome American hero and eventually marries him in front of 40,000 in Prague. Soon, the pair moves to (where else?) California and eventually has four children.

Olga Connolly remains synonymous with the Melbourne Olympics; for that matter, with Olympics in Australia.

Melbourne was the Games of Australian swimming stars Dawn Fraser and Murray Rose and track sprinter Betty Cuthbert; of U.S. basketball heroes Bill Russell and K.C. Jones; of American diver Pat McCormick; of Hungarian water polo player Ervin Zador.

And, certainly, of Olga Connolly.

Friday night, when Cuthbert and Fraser carried the torch as part of the final lighting at the end of the festivities, their presence was deserved; as Australians, almost mandatory. But Connolly should have been there too, somewhere in the stadium, amid the mind-blowing sounds and sights that celebrated all that is the Olympics and--relative to Connolly--all that has been.

She is more than a former Olympic star. She is an ongoing Olympic humanitarian. She is 67 now, has raised four children and saw the storybook romance end in divorce in 1973. Yet, she has lived and worked the Olympic ideal every day of her life. She competed in five Olympics, but always knew that what was happening outside the discus circle was much more important.

Her life since the Olympics has, for the most part, consisted of 12-hour work days and six-day work weeks for just about every sort of literacy and educational program she could find in Southern California.

Had somebody (U.S. Olympic Committee, Australian Olympic Committee?) thought to bring her here for these Games and have her on hand for the opening, her presence would have been unusual--for her. Opening ceremonies are not really her thing.

"No, I didn't think about being there," she said by phone from Newport Beach, just hours before the opening ceremony was to begin. "In my five Olympics, I only marched in one."

And even that one, 1972 in Munich, was a close call. By then, Connolly was competing as an American, and when her teammates elected her as the flag bearer, the USOC, put off by her outspoken stance on her new country's war in Vietnam, tried to get her election voided. But the athletes prevailed and Connolly carried the flag.

"One year, I didn't march because I didn't have shoes that fit me," she said. "In Melbourne, I had to compete the next day, with prelims in the morning and finals in the afternoon. I had 100% concentration, so I did not march."

Melbourne was "my Olympics," Connolly said, adding that she felt a "special energy, an inner assurance" when she got to Australia.

"All that was on my mind there was to do something good for the Czech people," she said. "I wanted to do it for the streetcar driver who told me I didn't have to pay when I got on, or for the man at the newsstand who gave me a paper in the morning and told me I didn't have to pay."

She had never been to Australia before, and hasn't been back since. But she still recalls the great adventure.

"It was a six-day flight, the old-fashioned way, on prop planes," she said. "I remember one of our stops was in Istanbul and I went out for Turkish coffee. I had never tasted anything so wonderful.

"We stopped in Singapore and I missed our bus and there I was, all alone, with no idea where I was or what to do. Suddenly, this man came and talked to me and I was afraid he was going to shoot me, but we kind of communicated and he said he wanted to take me someplace. I didn't know what to think, but I went along and it turned out he was a monk and he wanted to show me a huge picture he had of himself at a giant exercise session in Prague. He showed me that and he was so proud of it and then he just took me back."

She got to Melbourne and immediately made dozens of new friends.

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