Olga Fikotova Connolly, Olympian in a Cold War Romance, Dies at 91

Olga Fikotova Connolly, who won a gold medal in track and field for Czechoslovakia in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, watched Harold Connolly of the United States win one the next day, and, in March 1957, married him as the highlight of a storybook Cold War romance, died on April 12 in Costa Mesa, Calif. She was 91.

The cause was breast cancer, her daughter Merja Connolly-Freund said. She died in her son Jim’s home, where she had been receiving hospice care, Ms. Connolly-Freund said.

The governing body European Athletics said Olga Connolly had been the last living female gold medalist from the Melbourne Games.

Her competitive record as a discus thrower was exceptional: five Olympic Games (four representing the United States as an American citizen), five American championships and four American records. Harold Connolly, a hammer thrower from Massachusetts, competed in four Olympics.

But both may be remembered most for their unlikely Olympic romance. As The New York Times recalled in 1972:

“He went to an equipment shed one morning in the Olympic Village to check out a hammer for practice. An attractive woman discus thrower from Czechoslovakia named Olga Fikotova happened to be in the shed at the same time. Four months later, they were married.”

Getting to the point of exchanging vows had not been easy. Officials of Czechoslovakia’s Communist government had refused to allow the wedding to go forward until Antonin Zapotocky, the president, intervened more than three weeks after the couple had first sought permission. As Ms. Connolly told Radio Prague in 2008, “They were telling me I was a traitor and that I was running around with an American fascist.”

The couple — she was 24, he was 25 — planned a tiny wedding in Prague, with two former Czech Olympic champions, Emil Zatopek and his wife, Dana Ingrova Zatopkova, as witnesses. But word got out, and a crowd estimated at 25,000 to 30,000 packed the historic Old Town Square to see the couple.

“Somehow, fate brought us together,” Olga Connolly said, “and we found that although we were from opposite or faraway 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.”

The Connollys settled in Southern California, and Olga became a U.S. citizen. She went on to compete in the next four Olympics — in Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich — as an American, although she did not win any more medals.

She and her husband had four children, all of them becoming athletes: Mark, a college basketball player and briefly a boxer; Jim, an outstanding decathlete and javelin thrower; and their daughters, Merja, a national team volleyball player, and Nina, a tennis player.

In addition to Merja and Jim, who are twins, she is survived by her two other children, Nina Southard and Mark Connolly, and three grandchildren. From 1959 to the early 2000s, Olga lived in Culver City, Calif. After that, she lived mostly in Costa Mesa.

She had been a medical student while winning gold in the 1956 Olympics, but she never returned to those studies. Instead, after her marriage, when not competing, she worked on environmental causes, became a personal trainer, sold mountaineering goods, lectured at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, coached discus throwers and shot-putters at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, and supervised athletic programs for preschool children and older people.

Olga, along with her husband, also enjoyed a measure of celebrity. She was the mystery guest on an episode of the game show “To Tell the Truth” in 1958, and the couple appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” warmly introduced by Mr. Sullivan and serenaded by Louis Armstrong.

In 1968, she wrote a book, “The Rings of Destiny,” about her romance with Connolly. And in 1997, when the United States issued a series of postage stamps honoring women who had shaped American history, her image was chosen for a 10-cent stamp.

The marriage didn’t last, however. Separating after 16 years, the Connollys finalized a divorce in 1974. Olga never remarried, but in 1975 Harold married Pat Daniels-Winslow, a track coach and former Olympic 800-meter runner and pentathlete. Their son, Adam, became a nationally ranked hammer thrower. Harold Connolly died in 2010 at 79.

Olga Fikotova was born on Nov. 13, 1932, in Prague. Her father, Franticek Fikota, was a legionnaire in the Czech Army who became a personal guard of Tomas Masaryk (1850-1937), the first president of Czechoslovakia. As a girl, when visiting her father on the job, Olga would be told to stand erect when President Masaryk passed by on horseback.

After World War II, the family moved to the Czech village of Libis. Olga’s mother, Ludmila (Uhrova) Fikotova, helped support the family as a laborer in a chemical plant.

As a teenager, Olga participated in the Czech program of gymnastic education known as sokol. She discovered that she was a standout athlete.

At 5 feet 11 inches and 176 pounds, she played on Czechoslovakia’s national teams in basketball and team handball. Two years after she took up the discus, she won the Olympic gold medal with a throw of 53.69 meters (176 feet 1 inch).

Olga Connolly said her proudest athletic moment came during the opening ceremony of the Munich Olympics, when she carried the American flag into the stadium (one-handed, just as a Soviet heavyweight wrestler had done moments before carrying his flag).

“Stunningly, the captains of all sports within the Olympic delegation elected me to carry the flag during the opening ceremony,” she told The Baltimore Sun in 2004. “But the team’s manager canceled the result” of the election, “reportedly because of my outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam, and held another one. Democracy prevailed. The team elected me again.”

To sports historians, however, she’ll undoubtedly be remembered foremost for the romance that decades earlier had captured the imaginations of a tense world, breaching the iron curtain and becoming front-page news. As The Times wrote the day after the Connollys’ wedding in 1957:

“The H-bomb overhangs us like a cloud of doom. The subway during rush hours is almost impossible to endure. But Olga and Harold are in love, and the world does not say no to them.”

Frank Litsky, a longtime sportswriter for The Times, died in 2018. Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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