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U.S. Flag Bearers Have Connections to Causes

Staley, chosen by the U.S. contingent this year, and Connolly, elected to the same role in 1972, share a passion to help those in need.

August 14, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Dawn Staley should know Olga Connolly. They should be close friends, have dinner occasionally so they can inspire each other.

To be sure, they are worlds apart.

Connolly is 70, grew up under the politics of Communism in Czechoslovakia and won her fame as a discus thrower. Staley is 34, grew up under the politics of survival in North Philadelphia and won her fame as a basketball player.

But because of something that happened for Staley here Friday night in Olympic Stadium, 10 time zones from Connolly in Los Angeles, they are kindred spirits.

At 9:54 p.m., Athens time, the 5-foot-6 Staley, twice a gold medalist, entered the Olympic Stadium, leading the huge U.S. contingent, carrying the American flag. She had been elected to do this by the 538 American athletes here, most of them marching behind her.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 17, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Olga Connolly -- Former Olympian Olga Connolly's age was reported as 70 in a Sports article Saturday about Olympic flag bearers. Connolly is 71. The article also said Connolly had been in the Los Angeles area for nearly 30 years. It should have said nearly 50 years.

In 1972 at Munich, 32 years ago, the leader of the huge U.S. pack was Connolly. She too had been elected by her teammates.

What joins them is not so much that they were elected, but why. And what kind of people they are today.

Staley said that, as one of the American nominees, she was asked to tell her story. So she did, about her North Philly upbringing, about her career as a college player at Virginia, a pro player now with the Charlotte Sting of the WNBA, as well as coach of Temple's women's team. Mostly, though, she told about the Dawn Staley Foundation, which sponsors programs for middle-school children in Philadelphia. In 1998, she was awarded the American Red Cross Spectrum Award for her work in the community.

"I didn't talk as much about what I've done on the basketball court," she said. "I'm not comfortable, standing up and talking about myself, but that's what you were asked to do."

The resulting vote was what Staley called "a fairy tale landing in my lap."

"You don't plan for this, you don't work for this," she added. "It caught me totally off guard."

As Connolly's election did to her in '72.

By then, she was 38, the mother of four, and competing in her fifth Olympics. She had, as a 22-year-old from Czechoslovakia named Olga Fikotova, gone to the Melbourne Olympics, won the women's discus gold medal, fallen in love with American hammer thrower Harold Connolly, married him, moved with him to the United States and eventually become a citizen.

She never won another medal, but she made the U.S. team for the next four Games, and when it was time for the U.S. athletes in Munich to elect a flag bearer, they picked her.

She, too, had a story. When she was 7 or 8, her father was put in prison by the Nazis. When young Olga screamed at any Nazi soldier she saw, her mother scolded her, fearing they would take her too. When Olga arrived in Melbourne for the '56 Games, she was the only member of the Czech team who had refused membership in the Communist party.

Nevertheless, her election as flag bearer in '72 angered the United States Olympic Committee. They opposed her because she had taken an outspoken stance against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The athletes were asked to reconsider their choice. They declined and Connolly led her team in the opening.

When she finished, a USOC official congratulated her on how well she had marched. "You forget," she told him sarcastically. "I learned that at the May Day parades in Czechoslovakia."

Unlike Staley, Connolly has no foundation. Doesn't need one. She is a one-person whirlwind. In her nearly 30 years in L.A., she has been involved in virtually every children's literacy and fitness program there has been. She finds people in need and champions their causes.

Peter Ueberroth wanted her as part of the operations team of the '84 Olympics, until he heard about the reading program she was heading at USC.

"You have more important things to do," he said.

Connolly said her two biggest honors were winning the gold medal and being elected flag bearer.

"I can't describe what it felt like, carrying that flag," she said.

Staley said she expected her flag trip to be "an out-of-body experience."

Sometime soon, they ought to get together and compare notes. They'd like each other.

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