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."
September 3, 1972
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."
While Smith was sliding, other U.S. athletes felt they were being pushed. Lee Evans, the 1968 400-meter gold medalist and Olympic and world-record holder who finished fourth in this year's Trials, apparently was led to believe that if he did well in pre-Olympic races he would replace one of the three 400-meter qualifiers, which didn't make them too happy. Rey Robinson, who ran a 9.9 to finish second in the 100-meter dash at the Trials, ran one bad race at Oslo, and Stan Wright, the men's sprint coach, replaced him on the 4 x 100 relay team with Larry Black, a 200-meter qualifier who is a superior turn runner. "I'm trying not to let it bother me," said Robinson, "but if I win the 100 in world-record time, which I plan to do, Wright has to face it, not me." The man Evans thought he would replace in the 400, Vince Matthews, changed a few minds during a training meet when he ran a 44.7 to beat Evans by a 10th of a second. "And now," said Matthews, "I hope all that talk has ended."
Later, 5,000-meter runner Steve Prefontaine took on a field of plodders in the second of two 3,000-meter races that were run in the informal meet. Well, for them it was only 3,000 meters. Prefontaine and Bowerman had the officials step off an extra 240 yards, making the course exactly two miles.
"What's that for?" a friend asked Pre.
"Oh, I figured I might as well get the American two-mile record while I'm here," he said. Then he shot a wicked grin. "It will give those guys in the 5,000 something to think about." Frank Shorter had planned to run with Prefontaine but when he decided it was too cold and withdrew, Bowerman told Prefontaine to run in the first heat with another teammate, Leonard Hilton. When he lined up at the start a letter-of-the-law German official ordered him off the track; Prefontaine was entered in the second heat and the second heat was the race he would run in.
"God, they won't bend," growled Bowerman. "Everything is a hassle. I've got to go out tomorrow and fight with the police to let our hammer throwers throw. I might not get back."
Finally, Prefontaine ran. In the cold and the dark, with the West German team screaming, "Go, Pre! Go!" from the terrace of a beer garden that abutted the track, Pre ran on—a chesty, little figure with flowing hair—and finished half a lap ahead of the field. "Some German kept yelling, 'Halt, the race is over,' and I started to laugh," he said later. He was still laughing when he finished the two miles in 8:19.4, well under George Young's official U.S. record of 8:22.0. "Just a time trial," he said, which in effect it was, since the timers did not meet official standards.
The next day the beleaguered Bowerman returned safely from his battle with the police to find that his seat for the opening ceremonies had been sold. There is a section of the stadium set aside for athletes and coaches, but the Germans assumed all of them would be marching, so why not sell the space for one day? What they had overlooked was that all the athletes and coaches don't march. Bowerman's rage was truly Olympian. "Sorry," said the Germans, "but our computers didn't tell us. Nothing can be changed."
And so, last Saturday afternoon, Bowerman and his wife Barbara were standing alone outside the vast stadium as Olga Connolly carried the American flag past President Gustav Heinemann, without so much as a hint of a dip. Olga, like her husband before her, wanted to break with the stiff-necked tradition, but earlier in the day had accepted a compromise proposed by her fellow athletes. She would keep Old Glory up as it passed the German president, but she would lower it during the reading of the Olympic oath, which she did.
They let the 5,000 doves go, lit the Olympic flame and the Games were on. One of the doves fluttered weakly about the stadium and then fell dead at the feet of the Brazilian delegation. Thank God it didn't fall on Olga Connolly.