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Golden moment: carrying the flag

Guest writer Olga Connolly, then known as Olga Fikotova, won a gold medal in the discus for Czechoslovakia in the 1956 Summer Olympics and, more famously, was involved in an Olympic Village romance with U.S. hammer thrower Harold Connolly. That resulted in a marriage that lasted until 1973. She became a U.S. citizen and lives in California.

In the 1956 Summer Olympics, I represented Czechoslovakia. In four subsequent Olympics, I represented the United States. In this special year, when the ancient Games of Peace return to Athens, I offer my Independence Day story.

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A friend asked why would I write it for the United States' birthday?

Because, I said, my intellectual freedom was born when I arrived here.

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The world rocked by conflicts, the Cold War at its height, the Czechoslovak team arrived to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. We emerged from customs and immediately heard Czech language, greetings and applause. I was one of the last walking along the separation from the crowd.

"You are not allowed to speak with us, are you?" someone asked me.

Indeed, each athlete was warned not to react should the "agents provocateurs" -- Czechoslovak refugees living in Australia -- attempt to talk to us. Looking neither right nor left, ever so little I shook my head and was glad to get out of the terminal and onto the bus.

In my view, the people there waited for us because we brought along some of the homeland for which they were longing. That homeland entrusted me with representing its people, history and culture and perhaps the finest physical education and sports opportunity in Europe.

In the Olympic Village for the first of my five Games, I was struck by the mutual respect among athletes. Athletes intent on the last-minute perfection completed workouts and relished camaraderie on the training fields, offered names and handshakes, took pictures together, even clowned some. Even the athletes from countries where speech was muted by the Soviet umbrella found the courage to break through standard regimentation.

Hungarian friends, just out of the suppressed uprising at home, hearts tormented by decision-making whether to return or seek safety abroad, also found moments of comfort. My father was a political prisoner a few years before and I was thrown out of school for a few weeks as politically untrustworthy offspring of a bourgeois family. My parents grieved the wanton injustices of the political regime. For them, I wanted to win more than for anyone.

Gold and more

In the women's discus throw, a battle developed. Round after round, the lead changed, each distance an Olympic record. After the discus left my hand in the fifth of six attempts, establishing a personal, national and Olympic record, only fatigue was left. But that distance won the day.

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I heard a wild shout in Czech language from the stands, "She is ours; she won it for us!"

Before my competition, I met the U.S. Olympic champion and world-record holder, Boston teacher Harold Connolly. Handsome, humble, intelligent, witty, a great athlete and serious educator, he was like none I had met before.

Romances flourish in international meetings, sprouting from the joy of recognition of common interests, the majority turning into long-lasting friendships. Such, we thought, would be ours when the Games ended.

I was the only Czechoslovak team member who brought home the gold medal that year, and countless people rejoiced. But in a private meeting, the Czechoslovak Olympic managers rebuked me for dating an "imperialist athlete."

"The American is a schoolteacher in Boston," I said.

"We cannot send you to compete abroad anymore," they said, ending the discussion.

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The Olympic bridge across the Cold War chasm endured. The U.S. State Department allowed Harold visits to Czechoslovakia, and the president of Czechoslovakia expressed no objection to us getting married. He expected me to represent Czechoslovakia in the next Olympic Games, and I promised. An estimated 30,000 people came to see our unpublicized wedding.

Cold War tension

About a week after arriving in the United States, reporters at a reception given by the late John Foster Dulles asked me to compare living in Czechoslovakia and the United States. A State Department official tactfully intervened, advising that I not comment until I had experienced life in the United States for at least three years. Then, he said, I could make an informed decision about whether I wanted to become a citizen.

Three years hence, the 1960 Olympics in Rome looming, I drove an American car on American roads, ate American food, spoke American English and enjoyed my American husband and our 14-month-old American son.

More importantly, I enjoyed American freedoms. In the early '50s, my life differed little from the lives of others in Communist countries who were trapped in the suspicion and dogma-driven Cold War era. Everyone had to paddle his or her canoe along the prescribed course lined by steep walls. Those walls dissolved forever when I entered the United States.

I did not need to look over my shoulder to make sure nobody knew I was a fan of Ed Sullivan. I did not need to worry about the political correctness of the songs of Louis Armstrong. And, amid the stacks of the Boston Public Library, I could find uncensored answers to any question in the world.

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The natural direction was to become a U.S. citizen with full rights and responsibilities. I started citizenship classes, but first I had to fulfill my promise.

U.S. Olympian

I got into Olympic-caliber shape and sent an inquiry to the Czechoslovak Olympic Committee about conditions to meet for team selection. They swiftly replied that as an expatriate, I was no longer eligible for Olympic representation. The rejection stung as it precluded my fulfilling the promise, but perhaps it was logical. Having received the naturalization papers before the U.S. Olympic tryouts, I won a place on the U.S. Olympic team.

Unfortunately, some in the U.S. Olympic Committee did not want me, either. But my ideal world of the Olympic Games got the biggest blow when I met Czechoslovak athletes, one of whom, a friend in the past, spat on the ground at my feet and snapped, "Traitor." Others, whenever they saw me, walked in another direction.

My husband wiped off my tears, and we ate with our British, Italian, German and Yugoslav friends. I smiled again, but I was determined to acquire proficiency in English that would not allow anyone to get away with addressing me as a second-rate citizen.

Years later, I discovered that the Czechoslovak Olympic officials misinformed the public that I declined to represent my native country. By then, however, time had moved on considerably. After Rome, came the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Then, the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

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One last time

The 1972 Olympic Games on the horizon, I was a 39-year old mother of four who would never win an Olympic medal for the United States but had tried to contribute in other ways.

Touring as an Olympian, I studied our society as well as others. Technologically powerful, we are not invulnerable. Literacy, communication skills, sciences, fitness and health promotion, and protection of natural environments are keys to our future. Thus, I taught study skills and coordinated intramural sports at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, lent a hand to civic organizations and studied earth systems. But my soul yearned to represent the United States one more time.

Loyola Marymount allowed workers to build a throwing platform in the corner of a recreation field. Lunch-hour practices at work and evening weight training in the home garage made possible an American record at the Modesto Relays, 185 feet, 3 inches, more than 5 feet beyond the Olympic qualifying standard.

In Munich, women's track and field team members elected me a team captain, but the team's manager canceled the result, reportedly because of my outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam, and held another one. Democracy prevailed. The team elected me again.

Later, stunningly, the captains of all sports within the Olympic delegation elected me to carry the flag in the opening ceremony.

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Into the Olympic stadium, I carried the flag belonging to every citizen of this nation, regardless whether an athlete or non-athlete, bank director or maintenance man, a single woman or a grandmother, regardless of political philosophy, race, creed or ethnic background.

I carried the flag of the lighthouse of democracy, greetings from charitable people, a nation that moves forward on wings of rational discourse. I carried the flag of the United States of America.


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