To spouses and sweethearts alike, a very happy Valentine’s Day from The Olympians!
Gymnast Nikolai Prodanov and javelin thrower Diana Yorgova of Bulgaria are the first Olympians to marry during the Olympics, tying the knot in the Olympic Village of the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Americans Hal (hammer) and Olga (discus) Connolly sneak a kiss through a fence that prevented men from gaining access to the women’s rooms in Tokyo. They famously met at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when she was Olga Fikotova of Czechoslovakia, and they both took home gold.
Brit Ken Matthews, gold medalist of the 20K walk at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, gets a celebrated hug from his wife Sheila after his victory.
Double gold medalist (400m, 4x400m relay), Mike Larrabee, gets a lengthy kiss from his wife, Margaret. Larrabee of Team USA as you can see in the picture also placed the gold medal he had just won from his 400-meter finals around her neck.
Olga Fikotova Connolly is a five-time Olympian, and a gold medalist in the discus throw at the 1956 Olympics Games. Her romance and eventual marriage to Harold Connolly, four-time Olympian and champion hammer thrower at the same Melbourne Games is a shining part of Olympic lore.
In 1962, Harold, a teacher by profession, took the family to Finland when he accepted a Fulbright grant to teach English as a second language. Olga hoped to compete in her third Olympiad, at the Tokyo Games, but was consumed by family life, giving her little time to train and get in world-class condition. “My body was not in shape for discus throwing and my dream to compete in Tokyo began to seem unrealistic,” she wrote in a summary of events she had provided to a student researching the Tokyo Olympics.
But sometimes fate gives one a friendly push. Out of the blue, the Connolly’s were informed that officials representing the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee would visit them in Finland. And at the appointed time, “three superbly mannered gentlemen speaking flawless English visited our home.”
They told the Connolly’s of the committee’s plan to stage a large-scale rehearsal of the Olympics a year in advance (what was officially called The Tokyo International Sports Week). With warmth and smiles, the officials requested the participation of Harold Connolly in this competition because as they said, he was “truly one of the most respected competitors in the track and field throwing events and fully deserving of the honor.”
The organizers were reported to have spent about USD one million to organize the Sports Week, a good chunk spent in recruiting and paying for the expenses of over 340 foreign athletes and officials to participate in this Olympic rehearsal. The fact that they visited certain foreign athletes to personally invite them is an act of extraordinary respect. And that respect was not limited to Harold Connolly, as Olga went on to write:
And so, I was pouring tea and offering pastry, and participating in the conversation, all that time having to exercise self- discipline not to show how much I would like see Tokyo also. However, the leader of the delegation noticed. When conversation slowed down, he reached his hand to me and said gently: “Naturally, Olga, you an Olympic champion; and, therefore, if your health permits we expect you also to participate in this pre-Olympic competition. We want you to visit Tokyo and be a part of this event”.
Overcome by his kindness, I could not keep my tears back, but had to speak the truth. “Thank you very much, but I am not in shape”, I said. “It would be charity that I cannot accept.” The officials laughed, spoke to one another for a moment and came up with a plan where I could travel to schools and exercise with kids, learn about them and they learn about me, because many have not ever seen a western woman athlete.”
So at the Tokyo International Sports Week, Harold Connolly competed in the hammer throw, and Olga Connolly visited schools. “Kids found me very tall and climbed up in my arms to touch my hair that was different than theirs. I answered multitude of questions through the interpreter, happily drank ocha at train stations, learnt to eat with hashi.”
And so, she was smitten with Japan, a spark reignited. Thanks to Sports Week, she was committed to the Olympic movement more than ever before, and happily made her return as a representative of the US track team in 1964 at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
In my research on the Olympics, I treasure diaries, and love first-person accounts in newspapers or biographies. They are personal, often insightful, sometimes poignant. In October, 1964, The Mainichi Daily News published a series of articles based on interviews with Harold and Olga Connolly, the celebrated Olympians famous for their gold-medal accomplishments at the 1956 Melbourne Games, as well as their romance and eventual wedding attended by 20,000 people in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
In this series, the couple, primarily Olga, shared the power couple’s thoughts on Japan and the Olympics. I’d like to highlight their views on the Japanese, and the Olympic Spirit:
Japan is well known for its service. The Japanese say it’s because of their “omoiyari”, which is a high level of empathy, a great ability to put their feet in the shoes of the other person and then act positively on that understanding. Olga Connolly, who won the women’s discus throw in 1956, pointed out in one of the articles an example of “extreme” omoiyari, giving an example of a Japanese boy who was in pain, but refused to show that he was in pain because he didn’t want the other person to feel bad.
The food in the village is excellent and so is the service. Everyone of the Japanese men and women who work in the dining rooms does his duty with the utmost diligence. They quickly clear dishes away from the tables and scrub them with soap and brushes. I noticed the hands of one of the boys who wash the mountains of plates and saucers – they are all red form the water and the detergent. But he only smiles and does not utter a word of complaint. I had a bad accident the other day – I spilled some of the hot tea on the waiter’s hand. I was very upset and sorry, but he only bowed and smiled. He didn’t betray any signs of pain though his hand was quite burnt.
Many non-Japanese love Japan because of the dedication to excellence. But sometimes that dedication can seem overwhelming. The anecdote below made me smile.
At Meiji Park, too, some of the athletes feel a little uneasy, because of the extreme Japanese hospitality. Imagine a 120 kg giant weight man walking alongside a 65-kilo weighing Japanese attendant who insists on carrying his equipment. They mark your throws, bring your discus back and polish it shiny after every throw. The other day I got a little irritated when I wanted to throw and a fellow would not give me my discus until he had removed a stubborn stain.
Harold Connolly, hammer-throwing gold medalist in 1956, appeared in four Olympic Games from 1956 to 1968. Olga Connolly threw the discus in five straight, from 1956 to 1972. They live and breathe the Olympic Spirit. Here is their explanation of why they believe the Olympics are so important.
Here the whole world which shrank into seven thousands of Olympians shrivels still more – into a most interesting mixture of some five or six hundred who crowd in the hall. There are people of all shapes and sizes, speaking all languages, dressed in all kinds of clothes. On their emblems there are the most surprising inscriptions. Here a boy from Uruguay talks to a girl from India, a fellow from Cameroons engages into discussion with one from Turkey and United Arab Republic, while two Finns and a Korean stand by a listen to the conversation. Most people talk in some kind of English – I don’t think there is any other language in the world which is spoken with such a variety of foreign accents.
Sometimes we wonder what would happen if for some reason everybody had to remain in the Olympic Village for let’s say, six months or a year. Would it illuminate and solve the problems of the world or would it prove they are unsolvable? We believe that all the human beings here have so much in common, that it proves that the people everywhere belong into the same family, however it may quarrel.
They were two of the most famous people in Czechoslovakia in 1958 – one American and one Czech. But in America, while those in Athletics were well aware of Harold and Olga Connolly, the mass market was not. That likely changed when they appeared on the very popular American game show, “To Tell the Truth”, on June 10, 1958.
The objective of “To Tell the Truth” is to have four celebrity panelists identify the “real” person out of three, by asking questions. In this case, Olga appeared at the opening program alongside two others who claimed to be Olga. They all spoke with an Eastern European accent and they all had the letters CS on the sweat shirt they were wearing. The program started with an “affidavit” from the actual person. Here is how Olga of Prague, and Harold of Boston were introduced by the host of To Tell the Truth, Bud Collyer.
I, Olga Fikotová Connolly, am a Czechoslovakian athlete. A week before the start of the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, I met an American athlete, Harold Connolly. Our friendship continued throughout the course of the Games. Both of us set new Olympic records in our events. I won the gold in the women’s discus throw for Czechoslovakia, and Harold won first place in the hammer throw for the United States. Three months after the Games, Harold Connolly came to Prague and asked me to marry him. The authorities hesitated to grant permission until I made a personal appeal to the president of Czechoslovakia. We were married in Prague on March 27, 1957. 20,0000 people came to the wedding. We are now living in this country. Harold is teaching school and I am continuing my studies. Both of us are still actively engaged in active competitions. Signed Olga Fikotová Connolly.
The panelists consisted of known celebrities of the time: actress Betty White, actor Jackie Cooper, singer/actress Kitty Carlisle, and entertainment reporter, Hy Gardner. In the first segment of the show with Olga, some of the questions were probing and some were silly and entertaining.
Kitty Carlisle asked #1 (the real Olga): What is the biggest shoe manufacturer in Czechoslovakia? Olga replied, truthfully I presume, “Batta” (although her pronunciation was more like “Battia”). Carlisle also asked a question that Olga had trouble with, and to be honest so did I because she used an American idiom I was unaware of.
Carlisle: When you want to be a clinging vine and you want to tell your husband, um, something like “the vacuum cleaner is too heavy to pick up”, or “I can’t lift the bag,” what does he say? “If you can’t lift it, throw it?”
Connolly: “What does the vine have to be? I didn’t understand what I have to be.”
Carlisle: “When you say this is too heavy to lift,” will your husband help you with it?
You can see she’s nervous at first because she doesn’t understand the idiom, but she doesn’t shy away and quickly recovers with a sly smile and reply.
Connolly: “Oh yes, I say ‘Oh’, and my husband picks it up.”
After the panelist question round ended, Jackie Cooper and Kitty Carlisle correctly selected participant #1, the real Olga Connolly. And in a twist, after Olga Connolly and her
I recently ran in a 5,000 meter race, the first time I had competed in any official competition. It was for charity, so all I wanted to do was finish. I ran about 5k on my weekend runs, so I was confident I could complete the race. There were others who ran the 5k after just running the 10k race, which blew my mind.
Today, world-class athletes will rarely compete in multiple long-distance runs as the strategy and mindset differ from distance to distance, in addition to the general punishment on the body. However, not only did legendary runner, Emil Zátopek win the 5,000-meter race and the 10,000-meter race in Helsinki in 1952, he triumphed in the 42-kilometer marathon. The legend from Czechoslovakia won the three longest of the long-distance Olympic races and Emil Zátopekset the world record in each competition, all within one week. And his time record-setting time in the marathon of 2 hours, 23 minutes and 2 seconds was accomplished in the very first marathon he had ever run.
As discus thrower, Olga Connolly (nee Fitkotova), related in her autobiography, “The Rings of Destiny”, Emil Zátopek was the most sought-after star in the 1956 Games in Melbourne, where Connolly won gold. “Not only every athlete wanted to shake his hand, but every coach wanted to learn from Zátopek, every reporter wanted to interview him and every photographer wanted an ‘unusual’ or ‘intimate’ picture. At first the crowds of invaders searched for him in the dining room, later they sought his living quarters. Soon he found people walking freely in and out; eventually he developed the reflex of leaping into a broom closet each time he heard unfamiliar steps in the corridor. Zátopek complained that perhaps no other machinery was more effective in destroying the chances of a champion than excessive publicity.”
As it turns out, Zátopek did not medal at the Melbourne Games.
While the media wanted to know the secrets to Zátopek’s success, he revealed them to his friend, Connolly. “Before we settled to dinner, Emil ceremoniously unwrapped two bottles of Pilsner Urquell, the best Czechoslovakian beer, and divided the contents among my glass, his and Dana’s (his wife).”
“‘Emil, this is quite a celebration,’ I said. ‘You can’t have much beer left.’ I knew how jealously he protected the small case of beer he carried all the way from Prague. He sighed, ‘Well, it goes fast. Everybody is after me for a glassful, so I’ll soon have to manage without the ‘elixir.’ Zátopek was accustomed to drinking a glass of beer a day and claimed it helped to replenish body fluids lost in his daily twenty miles of running.”
“‘Medicinal beer drinking’ was one of the few topics on which Emil enjoyed anyone agreeing with him. In most other instances he preferred being opposed – always ready to engage in polemics, he was a master of aggravating arguments. Behind Zátopek’s receding forehead lay extraordinary mental faculties. He could recall minute facts from conversations he had held years before, and in several weeks abroad he could master the basics of any language. Years later, if he met his foreign friends again, he astonished them with his handling of Finnish or Urdu.”
It’s worth watching the above video to get to the last line of the narrator: “Here’s one Czech that will always be honored.”
The men stayed in military barracks inside the Olympic Village. But the women were housed in a four-story building that was fenced off from the men, and according to one report, its borders demarcated with barbed wire.
The women actually had full rein of the grounds, so to one Olympian, it seemed like overkill. It’s a “bit pointless,” the coach of the women’s British gymnastics team, June Groom, told The Japan Times. “After all the girls can go anywhere they please and have access to the men’s quarters, but there you are.”
Ada Kok, a teenage swimmer on the Dutch national team, remembers being able to see people on the road, and thus was warned to watch out for peeping toms. “Our chaperones from our teams warned us to close the curtains when we were about to sleep.”
Apparently, the barriers weren’t so great that husbands and wives couldn’t connect. Discus thrower, Olga Connolly, was reported to assist her husband, hammer thrower, Hal Connolly, with his laundry. As the AP reported, Olga would wash and iron Hal’s wear, and then pass the clean clothes over the wire fence.
On the Friday before the Opening Ceremonies, the organizers offered the women in the