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Pat Putnam
September 04, 1972
The glamorous pageantry of the opening ceremonies overrode the feuds and differences that beset Munich before the Games began
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September 04, 1972

Olympic Overture: Flags & Flak

The glamorous pageantry of the opening ceremonies overrode the feuds and differences that beset Munich before the Games began

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Since the 1908 Olympics, when that highly principled shotputter Ralph Rose refused to dip the American flag to King Edward VIII—"This flag dips to no earthly king!"—there has always been an awkward moment during the opening ceremonies when the Stars and Stripes is borne fully erect past the host nation's head of state. It is equally traditional that the disrespect is courteously ignored. And so last Saturday afternoon in Munich, under a pale blue Bavarian sky, the moment once more drew nigh: Olga Connolly and Old Glory, to the strains of When the Saints Go Marching In, bore proudly down on Dr. Gustav Heinemann, the earthly president of the Federal Republic of Germany. Olga Connolly? "Yeah, her," moaned one U.S. Olympic Committee official. "The troublemaker."

Four years ago at Mexico City the USOC replaced Harold Connolly as flag-bearer when Olga's husband said he intended to dip the flag. Obviously, that was one way to keep the tradition alive, by picking only athletes who promised to adhere to it. But this year the USOC lost its head and decided to let the athletes elect their own flag-bearer. What it got was Olga—who recently blasted the committee for trying to supervise her interviews with the press—but only after a last-ditch stand by some male chauvinists. "The flag-bearer ought to be a man, a strong man, a warrior. A woman's place is in the home," argued Russell Knipp, a middleweight weight lifter who will now get more mail than he can press from Women's Libbers. But Olga prevailed by two votes over superheavy weight weight lifter Ken Patera.

During the election, Olga was busy with petitions aimed at the International Olympic Committee. In ancient Greece, argued Olga, all wars came to a halt during the Olympic Games. The petitions wanted the IOC to ask President Nixon to stop the war in Vietnam during the Munich competition. "The ancient Greeks used to compete naked," said hurdler Ralph Mann. "I think I'll get up a petition asking them to revive that, too. It will have about as much chance as Olga's."

The original petitions never left the starting blocks. Posted in the Olympic Village for the athletes to sign, they were stolen during the night. Undaunted, she began making new copies. "We should call this the petition Olympics," said hammer thrower George Frenn. "That's all we've done since we got here."

Almost a week before the opening ceremonies the U.S. track team met with USOC officials and drafted a request that the IOC reexamine the Rhodesian question, "and so free all Olympic athletes and staff from making the moral decision now facing them." Head Track Coach Bill Bowerman, who had been quarreling almost daily with the USOC, nonetheless attributed the united action of the American team to USOC President Clifford Buck, who carried the team's request to the IOC. "Buck came to the meeting and learned about the realities of life," Bowerman said. "He listened and he agreed with a lot of things the athletes had to say, and then he went out and fought for them."

Under such pressure, the IOC, too, discovered—or rediscovered—political reality. Avery Brundage was outraged but outvoted, and the Rhodesians were expelled. "Thank God!" said the practical Germans, who could see their $650 million extravaganza turning into an intrasquad meet. Brundage called it political blackmail—a pun, no doubt. " Rhodesia never should have been here in the first place," snapped Bowerman. "They were invited by a decadent, archaic, aristocratic old men's club."

The crisis over, the athletes relaxed, only to find themselves suffocating under a feather bed of German efficiency and unbending rules. "Germans aren't good at innovation," admitted Willi Daume, the head of the Munich Organizing Committee, "and so we must use organization." For openers they organized an Olympic Village that is a monumental maze of concrete ziggurats, whimsical fountains and national flags fluttering from balconies alongside drying underwear.

"There's too much organization," said distance runner Frank Shorter. "I mean, there's a pinball machine here, a milk bar there, a miniature golf course across the sidewalk. You can't even say, 'Let's go out for such and such,' because you turn around and it's already there."

"It's like a fair," said quarter-miler Wayne Collett, "like the Los Angeles County Fair. Only I wish the people who do my laundry would quit stealing my uniforms." This was a popular lament. Things that went to the laundry with any sort of an emblem tended to disappear.

"It sure isn't Cali," said quarter-miler John Smith, remembering the subsistence housing at the Pan-American Games in Colombia. "There you had some excitement. You had people jumping from buildings, assassinations, fights, all kinds of things. It got the adrenalin going. Here, you just slide along."

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