The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne was a Games full of boycotts. The Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland didn’t attend in protest at the Soviet Union’s repression of the Hungarian uprising. Cambodia, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted because of the Suez Crisis and China didn’t go because Taiwan was going. Hungarian athletes ripped the communist emblem from their flag and the water polo match between them and the USSR had to be stopped after bloodshed.
But among all that political discord grew love. Czechoslovakian discus thrower Olga Fikotová and American hammer thrower Harold Connolly thawed the cold war a little when they fell in love in the Olympic Village and later married. “Fate used Harold and I to illustrate that we can all choose whether to quarrel or be happy together,” says Fikotová.
Now 79 and living in California, she remembers that coming home with both a gold medal and an American boyfriend brought a mixed reception. “I returned home as the only gold medal winner in the delegation and at an official reception I was told that I brought from Melbourne 50 per cent honour and 50 per cent shame because I’d been running around with an American fascist.”
A few months later, Connolly proposed marriage. While the US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told a press conference, “We believe in love,” the Czechoslovakians were more reluctant. The couple presented a personal petition to Czechoslovakia’s president Antonín Zápotocky. “The president told me that if I stayed home I would not be of use as a sports representative because if they allowed me to compete abroad, I would run away and sell out to American glitter. I answered that I would not sell out to anyone and if allowed to marry Harold and emigrate to America I would work hard to represent Czechoslovakia in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.”
Permission was granted, and in spite of instructions to keep the wedding low-key, word got out. 30,000 people turned up in the old town square to celebrate. National sport heroes Dana Zatopkova and Emil Zátopek were witnesses. “People sang and cheered and walked along with our wedding party,” Fikotová remembers. “When the Prague police officers also smiled and waved as they asked people to let us walk through, I realised that this was an extraordinary moment.”
After the wedding, Connolly sold one of his hammers so the couple could buy tickets back to the US, but when they arrived on American soil they had just 35 cents to their name. Connolly, a former history teacher, found work selling insurance while Fikotová, who had been training to be a doctor in Prague, earned $400 a month cleaning the offices of The Boston Globe.
Despite living in the US, Fikotová still hoped to compete in the Olympics as a Czech but received a telegram from the Czechoslovakian Olympic Committee denying permission. Instead, she went to Rome as a US competitor. “In Rome in 1960 I learnt that somehow everybody was really angry with me. The Czech athletes turned away from me and wouldn’t talk to me there.” It wasn’t until the Mexico Olympics in 1968 that Fikotová realised that the Czech authorities had spread the rumour that she refused to compete for her country.
Although she never won another gold medal, Fikotová went on to compete in four more Olympics after Melbourne. She had two sons and two daughters before divorcing in 1973. Today she volunteers for an environmental organisation and teaches a fitness class at the University of California.