Special Olga Fikotová-Connolly: 1956 Olympic champion dubbed “traitor” in communist Czechoslovakia over romance with US athlete
Olga Fikotová won gold in the discus at the Olympic Games in 1956, less than two years after taking up the discipline. At the Olympics she met and fell in love with an American athlete, Harold Connolly. Back home in Czechoslovakia, their romance overshadowed her stunning success, with Olga accused of being a traitor by the communist authorities. Marriage to Harold spelled the end of her career as a Czechoslovak athlete, though she went on to represent the US at four Olympic Games. Olga Fikotová-Connolly is our guest in this special programme.
In her early twenties, Olga Fikotová was studying to be a doctor in Prague but was also a serious athlete, representing Czechoslovakia in basketball and handball before turning her hand to the discus, the discipline that was to make her name.
At the age of 24, she was the only Czechoslovak athlete to take a gold medal at the 1956 Olympic Games in the Australian city of Melbourne. A day before the games began, she met an American athlete called Harold Connolly, who himself was to win gold in the hammer a day after Olga’s success. A whirlwind romance followed, with the international press describing them as Olympic gold lovers between whom the Iron Curtain had fallen. But if the path of true love never did never did run smooth, it was even more complicated, much more complicated, for Olga and Harold.
Olga Fikotová-Connolly is today a vigorous and good humoured 75-year-old. We spoke when she visited Prague recently to receive a lifetime award for fair play from the Czech Olympic Committee. My first question – what did it feel like topping the podium at the Olympics in front of 100,000 people?
“It really doesn't matter all how many people there are in the stadium, because if you are really intent on your track meet you don't think so much about that.
“I think that maybe more than the crowds of people it’s more like an internal thing – you want to win. In my case you want to win for your family, for your country, for your value system, whatever is inside you.
“You maybe just want to make people happy; I just wanted to make people happy – not so much proud or something, but happy.
“But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of the whole thing, it's the same thing as in practice, it’s just you and your implement and you just try to do the best you can.
“First you are almost sick with the tension, which is good: that’s adrenalin, which is normal. Then once you start warming up and once you start going into your event, then it's just you and your event.
“The whole preparedness shows in your performance, that's all. But when you do manage to win there’s lots of…well, you have to be healthy at that moment, you have to be in good mental and physical balance.
“It doesn’t come always, even if you a well trained athlete. So if it happens you are very fortunate, too. Then you are just for a moment on top of the world.
“As for myself, I was standing on the victory stand, and I could hear how happy people were in Czechoslovakia, but at the same time there's this whole stadium yelling and applauding and calling my name and so forth.
“To me it was like, my gosh, the whole of mankind loves me, there were representatives from everywhere, and I love all mankind. It was almost a commitment I made to continue this love and embrace of everybody – that was my internal feeling.”
I understand that you had been throwing the discus for only two years before you won the Olympic gold and set an Olympic record. How was that possible?
“Well, yes, I had been throwing the discus for maybe less even than two years, in fact. But that could cause a false image, because before that I’d I'd competed in European handball and in basketball, and was a member of the national team in both sports, so I was a very highly trained athlete.
“Both handball, where I was a goalie, and basketball itself, are both very, very…movement-oriented sports. So already, I believe, I had a great deal of neuro-muscular co-ordination and pathways developed.
“When I started to throw the discus, my old coach, Otakar Jandera was his name, a very venerable coach, said to me ‘at your level of athleticism, all you need is learn the technique and catch the rhythm of it’.
“He started me off by playing the Blue Danube over and over again on the loudspeakers in the stadium, and had me making turns.
“I can say that before I went to the Olympic Games I probably had, say, from the age of 14 – before those two years – seven years of really heavy training.”
But the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne weren't just a question of athletic success for you, you also met your future husband there, and that became a big story internationally.
“Yes, neither of us had calculated that…”
I should say also that he was an American athlete, who won gold in the hammer – Harold Connolly.
“Yes, Harold came to Melbourne mainly to compete against his pen-pal of sorts, Krivonosov of the Soviet Union, they'd exchanged greetings.
“I came just because I was a discus thrower. But my plans were to come back, finish medical school, maybe one day to go and work with Albert Schweitzer. My mind was somewhere else completely.
“But somehow fate brought us together, and we found that although we were from opposite or far away corners of the world, and definitely from political systems that seemed to be completely incompatible, that when it came to basic human values and observations, we were extremely similar.
“We were trying to converse in my very fragmented English, and his fragmented German, because he'd travelled in Germany before. We were kind of putting together ideas and views and we were surprisingly close together. From that developed, besides curiosity and friendship, also a feeling of love.”
How did the Czechoslovak team minders react, given that this was at the height of the Cold War, to the fact that you, a Czechoslovak athlete, were seeing an American athlete?
“That was a big problem, and maybe also a reason behind our getting closer together. I felt that they were insulting to Harold when, for example, we went to a concert, which was an Olympic Event, part of the Cultural Olympics…in that concert hall we met the leaders of our delegations, and I was introducing my ex-husband when two of the leaders just turned away, one said ‘excuse me’ and turned away. They wouldn’t even talk.
“At that point Harold looked at me and said, I don't have an infectious disease! Why don't they talk to me? And I said to him, oh, you will understand, we need to go to our seats. Because I was scared.
“Now, however, I see how foolish those people were. You cannot close your mind. If you don't learn about other people, how can you judge them?”
A year later, your husband-to-be Harold came to Prague and you got married here in 1957. Tell us about your wedding.
“It wasn't even a year later; it was several months later when Harold was travelling Europe, representing the State Department as an ambassador of goodwill. When his tour ended then he came to Prague, and we had a wedding.
“It was a secret wedding. We were told, or rather we weren't told but in fact I already knew, that having a weekend wedding probably would not please the authorities. I was afraid of causing any problems for my parents, so I said, let’s have a wedding in the middle of the week.
“When we went to apply for it, I asked for it to be on a Wednesday, in the middle of the week, and in fact I got some praise for doing so. I was told it was a smart thing to do, and was told too that I should not talk to anyone about my wedding, as it was my personal business, to which I replied that of course it was my personal business.
“When the wedding day arrived and our cars couldn't get to the square, I thought there'd been an accident. But actually some say 25,000, some say 30,000 people…had turned out to see the wedding.”
This was on the Old Town Square in Prague?
“Yes, on the Old Town Square. Some came because they had never seen Dana and Emil Zátopek, who were our witnesses. Some came to see the American who'd come to Prague – they'd never seen a regular, average American, or an American champion like that…others came to support me. And it turned into this crowded festival – people had fun!”
Did you in a sense have to negotiate your marriage with the communist authorities? I understand even the president, Zápotocký, was somehow involved.
“When we decided to get married, we applied, like anybody else, for a permit to marry a foreigner. There was lots and lots of paperwork to cover, and even when we'd finished and submitted all the paperwork, the various representatives were telling me that I was a traitor and that I was running around with an American fascist and such like, which made me terribly sad. But I guess that because I was young I was maybe a bit more rebellious, as young people often are.
“At one point Harold suggested that we should write a letter to the president. I said we couldn't do that and he asked why, and I had to just say, I don't know why, but I guess we just don't do things like that. He said that he would write a letter, and he did in fact write one letter, and then I wrote one too.
“It was close to a big congress which was changing sport from having less efficient administrative procedures over to having more efficient ones, and I was at that congress too. The president opened the congress and Emil Zátopek spoke to him. He responded that he didn't have time to worry about people's personal affairs.
“But the next day I received a note from his office saying that he'd granted me an audience. He was under some false impression that Harold's father had a business, and that the business needed me there for publicity. But really Harold's father was a war veteran and at that time living in a veteran's hospital because he was badly injured.
“I just said, Mr President, you don’t have good information. He replied that was the version he had and I said, whoever informed you was a liar! I was kind of mad, you know.
“But the president was kind; I can't say that he wasn't kind. He just said, I really can’t help you very much, because different offices have to make the decisions, what do you want me to do?
“I said, just whatever you can, put in a kind word. He said, I tell you what, you have my blessing, but all I can do for you is put in a kind word.
“But a few days afterwards we received a permit. So I am sure he put in a kind, strong word somewhere.
I understand also though that later the Czechoslovak Olympic Committee went against Zápotocký's wishes, and wouldn't let you continue to represent Czechoslovakia once you were married – you wanted to.
“The way things turned out, I received a permit to get married here, for a wedding and also to leave for the US. But I didn't receive a passport. At that time, I didn't even know about passports very much. When we travelled, we travelled in a group, that's sport! We didn't have passports, we had some kind of ID.
“So when I received a paper that said I could emigrate to the US, I just took it. And I started to realise that something was wrong on the express train to Vienna, when at the border everyone had a real passport and I just had this paper.
“Then when we came to Washington we visited the Czech Embassy where I thought I was supposed to turn in the paper, the Czech ambassador took it and looked at it as if he didn't know what to do with it.
“I said, I guess they are just sending it to you and I can receive a real passport. He said, we don't expect you to traipse around the world when you just have a visa to come here. That was very strange, but I still thought I'd be able to go back and forth. But then I didn't receive a visa to go to the European Championships in Stockholm.
“I was training and I asked how I would qualify for the Czech team, whether I would have to come to Czechoslovakia for national championships. I then received a letter form the Olympic Committee saying that they no longer considered me to be a citizen of the country, and that if I couldn't train in Prague then I wouldn't be allowed to compete for Czechoslovakia.
“Then I realised that I'd been told 'no'. I was crushed about it, mainly because I'd promised something to the president and had no way to explain it.
“Soon afterwards in Rome I learnt that somehow everybody was really angry with me, because the Czech athletes turned anyway from me and wouldn't talk to me there.
“Then much later in Mexico City, it was interesting when I met a group of Czech athletes. I looked at them, they looked at me and so I said hello to them in Czech. They all knew me anyway or had heard about me and they started talking to me and then one said to me, all right, how was it, did you really fly the coop, or did they give us a pack of lies about you?
“I told them that I hadn't run away and told them what had happened. It was only then that people began to understand that it had only been claimed that I had refused to compete, when in fact I was not allowed to compete.
“But that's water under the bridge. When I came two years ago, I was invited by this new Czech Olympic Committee. Those guys hadn't even been born, or they were in diapers, when I was competing!
“We became almost instant friends, and it's totally different now. But now I'm an American.”
Indeed Olga Fikotová-Connolly was to represent the United States at four Olympic Games, even carrying the US flag at the opening ceremony at Munich in 1972. She never repeated her gold success. Her marriage to Harold ended in the mid 1970s.
Today Mrs Fikotová-Connolly lives in California and is very active, with a lot of her energy going into promoting environmental awareness, an issue very close to her heart. She also leads a keep fit group and works in a shop selling mountaineering goods.