Harold Connolly, 79

Harold Connolly, Olympic gold medalist in hammer throw, dies at 79

Olympic champion Harold Connolly and Olga Fikotová, greeted by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.
Olympic champion Harold Connolly and Olga Fikotová, greeted by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. (1957 Washington Post File Photo)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010

Harold Connolly, 79, who won a 1956 Olympic gold medal in the hammer throw and who remains the most dominant American in the history of his sport, died Aug. 18 at an exercise gym in Catonsville. He collapsed while riding a stationary bicycle, his son Adam Connolly said, and died of a heart attack. He had lived in Catonsville since February.

Mr. Connolly held the world record in his event for nine consecutive years, 1956 to 1965, setting six separate world marks during that time. After his athletic career, he became a top official with Special Olympics in Washington and was an assistant track coach at Georgetown University.

After winning his gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, Mr. Connolly became involved in a much-publicized Cold War romance with Olga Fikotová, a gold-medal-winning discus thrower from Czechoslovakia. Their engagement became nothing less than an international cause celebre, as their efforts to marry were repeatedly rebuffed by the Czech bureaucracy and Fikotová was denounced as a traitor in her Communist-controlled country for wanting to marry an American. Mr. Connolly sought assistance from the U.S. State Department and traveled to Prague in 1957 to make a personal appeal to the Czech president for permission to marry.

When the marriage finally took place, more than 30,000 people attended their public ceremony in Prague. Olga Connolly went on to compete for the United States in four Olympic Games before they were divorced in 1974.

Mr. Connolly, meanwhile, maintained his pre-eminence as a hammer thrower for years. He participated in the Olympics in 1960, 1964 and 1968 and continued to throw the hammer in international track meets until his late 40s. He was one of the first world-class athletes to admit to using steroids, which were not illegal for most of his career.

"For eight years [1964 to 1972] I would have to refer to myself as a hooked athlete," he told a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1973.

He said anabolic steroids were unknown in 1956, but by the early 1960s elite Western athletes were following the example of athletes of Eastern Europe.

"By 1968, athletes in every event were using anabolic steroids and stimulants," he testified. "I knew any number of athletes on the 1968 Olympic team who had so much scar tissue and so many puncture holes in their backsides that it was difficult to find a fresh spot to give them a new shot."

Without apologizing for his use of steroids, Mr. Connolly said the muscle-building drugs should not be used by young athletes and were no substitute for skill, training and competitive fire.

"I can't think of another athlete of his stature who has talked as openly about steroids," his son Adam, who was once the No. 3-ranked hammer thrower in the United States, said Saturday. "His general view was that the health consequences were overblown, and that if you're an adult there's nothing wrong with it."

Mr. Connolly's tolerant stance was contradicted by that of his second wife, Pat Winslow Connolly, a three-time Olympian who later coached gold-medal-winning sprinter Evelyn Ashford and was an outspoken opponent of performance-enhancing drugs.

"The overwhelming majority of the international track-and-field athletes I have known," Mr. Connolly said in 1973, "would take anything and do anything short of killing themselves to improve their athletic performance."

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