16/07/2024
Norwich, GB 15 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

OLGA FIKOTOVA, aged 91

THE WEDDING OF THE YEAR – 1957

Born in Most, in Czechoslovakia, a city 50 miles north-west of Prague, Olga showed sporting prowess from a very young age.

Even as a teenager, she had represented her country in basketball and handball, the latter as a goalkeeper. She was very tall, at 5 feet 11 inches.

Olga won a silver medal as part of the Czech basketball team in the 1954 European Championships.

She was training to be a doctor (orthopedic surgeon) at Charles University in Prague, when she met the noted athletics trainer, Otakar Jandera.

He persuaded Olga to take up discus. She said her ability in other sports helped her adapt easily. “Both were very, very movement-oriented sports. So already, I believe, I had a great deal of neuro-muscular co-ordination – and pathways developed.”

Jandera told Olga, “At your level of athleticism, all you need is to learn the technique and catch the rhythm of it.”

He trained her in an empty stadium with loudspeakers blaring out the ‘Blue Danube’, enabling her to twist in time to the music.

She was selected for the Czech national team in 1955. Her first event was in Poland. Olga came 28th out of 28.

She was approached by Nina Ponomaryova, the Soviet athlete, and Olympic champion from 1952. Nina said, “Your problem is you’re too skinny. And you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Nina Ponomaryova (courtesy Daily Telegraph)

Nina offered to secretly share the techniques of her Soviet coaches. The two athletes became good friends.

Olga improved significantly, and was selected as part of the Czechoslovakia team for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

As Czechoslovakia was a communist-controlled country, all their team were strictly monitored in Australia, to stop them fraternizing with westerners.

However, the day before the games actually started, Olga met American hammer thrower, Harold Connolly. She’d finished her training session and had just put her equipment into a trailer. Instead of coming down the steps, she jumped…and landed on top of a passing American athlete – Harold.

Harold Connolly (courtesy New York Times)

Olga spoke little English and Harold no Czech. They conversed, haltingly, in German, as Harold had picked a little bit of the language up whilst competing abroad for his country.

He was usually known as ‘Hal’.

They got on really well. “We were kind of putting together ideas and views and we were surprisingly close together.”

They fell in love.

Olga took Harold to a concert held for all competitors. There, she introduced him to the two leaders of the Czech delegation. Harold offered his hand, but they both walked away.

Harold said, “I don’t have an infectious disease.” Olga told him it would take a while to get used to Eastern European ways.

The following day, Olga competed in the women’s discus. Her two main competitors were both Soviet athletes: Irina Beglyakova and Olga’s friend, Nina Ponomaryova.

Olga’s first throw was terrible. She told herself to get her act together.

Olga won the gold medal with her fifth throw – 53.69 metres. It was 15 cm further than her closest rival (Beglyakova). It was a personal best and was also a new Olympic record. Olga was 24 years old.

The winning throw (courtesy WA Today)

She had been throwing the discus for just under two years.

She was asked later if Nina Ponomaryova was pleased for her. “No – she was as mad as hell.”

It was the only gold medal that Czechoslovakia won in the Melbourne Olympic Games.

Remembering her experience, Olga said later on, “My whole being, my body, mind and soul was just intent on that throw – just throw it as far as it will go. There’s a point where an athlete reaches this special peak performance, where everything goes into that effort. I knew that was all the energy I had.”

Olga became a great hero of the crowd. “Standing on the victory stand, 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.”

The following day, Harold won the gold medal in the men’s hammer competition.

The Australian press called them the ‘Olympic Gold Lovers’. The western media loved the story. The Czechs were less impressed. Olga was moved out of the team’s accommodation and sent to stay in Sydney, so she couldn’t see Harold. They tried to label him as the ‘American Fascist.”

After the games, the couple went back to their respective countries. Olga returned to a hero’s welcome with crowds lining the streets.

Olga Fikotova (courtesy Olympedia)

However, at an official reception, Olga was told she had, ‘Brought 50% honour and 50% shame on the country.’

Harold received a more positive government response. John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State, announced to the nation, “We believe in love.”

Soon afterwards, Harold got a visa to visit Olga in Prague.

They decided to get married.

To marry a foreigner, any Czech citizen needed a permit. Olga was refused one.

In anger, Harold decided to write to the Czech President, Antonin Zapotocky. Olga told him, “We just don’t do things like that.”

Harold went ahead with his letter – and Olga sent one as well.

A few days later, Olga was summoned for a meeting with President Zapotocky – alone.

Antonin Zapotocky (courtesy Radio Prague International)

The President told her Harold’s father owned a business and was only using her as publicity.

She knew this was a lie. His father was a wounded war veteran who had been in a military hospital since the end of the war and was incapable of running a business.

Zapotocky told Olga that his sources of information were extremely reliable. She responded, “Whoever informed you was a liar.”

Later, Olga remarked that she was stunned at how brave (or foolish) she had been.

Shortly afterwards, a permit arrived in the post – signed personally by the President.

Harold and Olga planned a secret wedding in Old Town Square. They had known each other for under a year. They chose as their witnesses, noted Czech athletes – both gold medal winners from the 1952 Olympics – Emil Zatopek and his wife Dana Zatopkova.

The couple decided on a Wednesday afternoon wedding, so as to avoid publicity.

However, word got out. People crowded to see the happy couple. “When the wedding day arrived, our cars couldn’t get to the square. I thought there’d been an accident.”

It is estimated between 25,000 to 30,000 people attended the wedding. “Some came because they’d never seen Dana and Emil Zatopek. 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.”

The marriage made international headlines. The following day, the New York Times said, “The H-Bomb overhangs us like a cloud of doom. The subway during rush hour is almost impossible to endure. But Olga and Harold are in love, and the world does not say no to them.”

After the wedding, Olga and Harold moved to the USA. They had so little money that Harold had to sell his Olympic winning hammer. She said they arrived in the USA with just 35 cents between them.

They settled in Southern California. They had four children: Mark, Jim, Mereja and Nina.

Harold (Hal) was a teacher by profession. At this time, Olympic athletes were all amateurs.

Olga wanted to continue to represent Czechoslovakia at discus. However, she received a letter from the Olympic Committee saying that she was only allowed to perform for her country if her training  was within its borders.

Additionally, she was told by the Czechs that they didn’t want her. In their press, they claimed Olga had refused to compete for them. She was labelled as a traitor.

Instead, Olga represented the USA. She did not have a passport as Czech authorities had taken hers away when she left the country. Her application for an American passport took a long while to process.

Olga was selected for a competition in Sweden. To her horror she found she was unable to attend. When she visited the Czech embassy in Washington D.C, she was told her visa was for the USA only.

Meanwhile, Harold and Olga appeared on the US TV show, ‘To Tell the Truth’. They appeared alongside two imposters and the panel had to judge who were the real Olympic gold medal winners.

To Tell the Truth (courtesy You Tube)

Olga also appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, where another guest, Louis Armstrong, serenaded her.

In 1960, Olga was selected for the US team for the Rome Olympics. She came seventh. She was extremely disappointed that none of the Czech team would talk to her – some of whom had been close friends.

A loving kiss at the Rome Olympics (courtesy WA Today)

In 1963, Hal was offered a job teaching English as a foreign language in Finland. The family moved to Scandinavia.

Having had four children, Olga did not feel she was able to compete in the 1964 Olympic Games, held in Tokyo. “My body was not in shape for discus throwing and my dream to compete in Tokyo began to seem unrealistic.”

The family were visited by US Olympic officials. The American team were having trials in Tokyo in late 1963 and they persuaded Olga to participate. She did really well – and was selected for the Olympic Games.

However, in 1964, Olga performed poorly. She had been right about her fitness.

Very soon after the Games, the Connolly family returned to live in California.

Olga also performed for the USA in the Olympic Games in Mexico City 1968, coming sixth.

It was during these latter games that another Czech athlete finally spoke to her. He said, “Did you really walk away from our team, or is it another pack of lies we’ve been told?”

As soon as she told him the truth, the Czechs re-established their contact with her.

That same year (1968), the couple published a book about their romance entitled ‘The Rings of Destiny’.

Olga’s book (courtesy Amazon)

Harold’s athletic career was also very successful. He broke the world record for hammer throwing, nine times.

Olga was getting increasingly political. She was vocal in her opposition to the Vietnam War.

In 1972, in Munich, Olga represented the USA for the fourth time (her fifth Olympics). This time, she was chosen as the American flag bearer.

The American Olympic committee did not want her because of her opposition to the war but she was elected by the other athletes. Olga became the first woman to carry the American flag at the Olympic Games.

Afterwards, an American official sarcastically commented to her, “For somebody who’s anti-war, you marched very well.”

Olga retorted, “In Czechoslovakia, you learn to march.”

By her own admission, Olga did not do very well at the 1972 Olympics. She was too preoccupied with using the Games as a vehicle to promote world peace. During the tournament, Olga openly demanded that President Nixon cease the bombing of Vietnam.

In 1975, after seventeen years of marriage, Olga and Harold divorced.

Soon afterwards, Harold got married again to athletics coach Pat Daniels. Olga always maintained good relations with Harold, and Pat became a friend. However, Olga never remarried.

Olga and Hal – just good friends(courtesy iROZHLAS)

She reflected on her marriage. “It was a great romance, a great infatuation that grew…But I’m not sure it was true love.” Olga pointed out that she and Harold had only really known each other for two weeks before they decided to get married.

Olga began fitness studies, ultimately becoming a Certified Exercise Therapist. She worked at the University of California (UCLA).

Olga became active in environmental awareness, animal rights and encouraged youth participation in many different projects. She also worked part time in a shop selling mountaineering equipment.

She also had a spell as a social worker, helping immigrants and children living in poverty.

Eventually, Olga moved to Nevada where she set up her own fitness club in Las Vegas.

Her son, Mark, played basketball for his university team and became a Golden Gloves boxer. Jim became national javelin champion and a decathlete. Her daughter Mereja played volleyball for the US national team and was a professional playing in Italy. The youngest daughter, Nina, was the only one of her children who was not sporty. She became a singer instead.

Olga always claimed she would prefer to be remembered for her athletic achievements, not the famous romance – but it was not to be.

She carried her Olympic gold medal everywhere with her, in a handbag.

Asked how important the Olympic Games were in the modern age, Olga said, “You are not a representative of a political regime. You are a representative of humanity – of what humans can be.”

She was questioned about how the officials from Czechoslovakia had tried to prevent their country’s athletes from mixing with foreign competitors. “If you want to talk to people, you can talk to people. That was one of my big lessons from the Olympic Games. You have a smile, you have a handshake, you have a heart.”

Olga died in Nevada aged 91. Harold had predeceased her, dying in 2010.

In one of her later interviews, Olga was asked about her gold winning performance. “When it comes to the nitty-gritty of the whole thing, it’s the same thing as in practice – just you and your implement and you try to do the best you can.”

Asked about her motivation, Olga said, “You maybe just want to make people happy; I just wanted to make people happy-not so much proud or something, but happy.”

Olga was the last surviving female gold medal winner from the 1956 Olympic Games.

RIP – Romance Impresses Prague

 

Previous Article

JIM LAWRENCE, aged 90

Next Article

MILDRED KORNMAN, aged 97

You might be interested in …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *