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Harold Connolly, champion in hammer throw

Harold Connolly of the Boston Athletic Club worked out at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1956. Harold Connolly of the Boston Athletic Club worked out at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1956. (Associated Press)
By Frank Litsky
New York Times / August 21, 2010

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NEW YORK — Harold Connolly, who overcame a withered left arm to win the hammer throw in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and then married the women’s discus champion, Olga Fikotova of Czechoslovakia, after a storybook Cold War romance, died Wednesday in Catonsville, Md. He was 79.

Mr. Connolly was at his gym doing his regular workout on an exercise bicycle when he passed out, said his second wife, the former Pat Daniels, a three-time American Olympic runner and pentathlete. He apparently hit his head on the concrete floor and died, she said.

Mr. Connolly’s left arm was injured during birth, and he fractured it 13 times as a child. His left arm grew to be 4 1/2 inches shorter than his right and his left hand two-thirds the size of his right. As he wrote of his childhood in his unpublished memoirs:

“I began to consider myself a reject, chained to a small army of twisted bodies in the hospital waiting room, and responded by trying to ignore my crippled associates. I wanted to push myself into the ‘normal’ society. I was a handicapped person who knows the agony of all-out trying and not accomplishing. They didn’t treat the disabled with dignity then. I couldn’t stand to be treated differently.’’

When he won his Olympic gold medal, photographers yelled at him to raise his arms in triumph. He lifted only his right arm.

In 1991, he told The New York Times: “The thought of being patronized made me sick. I wanted to play by the rules, not rules adapted for me because I was disabled.’’

Harold Vincent Connolly was born Aug. 1, 1931, in Somerville, Mass., and was raised in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood. He paid his own way to Boston College, where he was a mediocre shot-putter. When he retrieved hammers in practice and threw them back farther than the hammer throwers had thrown them, he was switched.

He graduated in 1953 and later spent 30 years as a high school teacher and vice principal in Santa Monica, Calif., and 11 years as a Special Olympics executive.

The hammer is a 16-pound metal ball attached to a handle by a chain almost 4 feet long. The thrower spins three or four times in a ring and flings it. What Mr. Connolly lacked in arm strength, he made up for with speed and leg power.

Mr. Connolly competed in four Olympics, finishing eighth in 1960 (“Too much pressure,’’ he said) and sixth in 1964 and not qualifying for the final in 1968. In 1972, he finished fifth in the US trials and failed to make the team.

In an event in which Americans seldom do well, he broke the world record six times, starting with 218 feet, 10 inches in 1956 and ending with 233 feet, 9 inches in 1965. Now, with improved training, coaching, and technique, the record is more than 284 feet.

Mr. Connolly won nine US titles in the hammer throw and three in the indoor 35-pound weight throw. In 1984, he was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

In the 1956 Olympics, wearing ballet shoes for better footing, he won with a throw of 207, 3 inches. Years later, he said: “I was emotionally removed from the scene. I knew my life would never be the same. So I was standing there when the other medalists turned toward the flags for the national anthems. They started playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and I was stupidly still facing the stands, not the flags. I didn’t even hear the anthem.’’

Mikhail Krivonosov of the Soviet Union, the world record holder and silver medalist, put his hand on Mr. Connolly’s hip, turned him, and saved the day.

Earlier at those Olympics, Mr. Connolly met Fikotova. A romance ensued, and the next year he went to Prague and received permission from the Czech president to marry her. They were married in three ceremonies there, with a celebration before 40,000 well-wishers.

They were divorced in 1974. In 1975, he married Daniels, who became the coach of Evelyn Ashford and other outstanding runners. Besides his wife, Mr. Connolly leaves four children from his first marriage: two sons, Mark of Las Vegas and Jim of Marina del Rey, Calif., and two daughters, Merja Connolly Freund of Corona del Mar, Calif., and Nina Southard of Costa Mesa, Calif.; two children from his second marriage: a son, Adam of Silver Spring, Md., and a daughter, Shannon Podduturi of Manhattan; a stepson, Bradley Winslow of San Jose, Calif.; and five grandchildren.

Jim Connolly was the NCAA decathlon champion for UCLA in 1987, and Adam Connolly was America’s third-ranked hammer thrower in 1999.

After retiring in 1999, Mr. Connolly became a traveling coach and salesman for the hammer throw and ran the website hammerthrow.org.

In 1983, he wrote in The Times that he had used anabolic steroids for many years, before they were illegal. He said he did not know if they had helped his performances. A year after he stopped using them, the 250 pounds on his 6-foot frame had dropped to 203. In later years, he opposed the use of steroids.

“I used to think that each athlete should decide for himself whether to use them,’’ he said. “Now the drugs are out of hand.’’