Former Olympian Harold Connolly died at 79 last week. He died in the gym, with his boots on.
Connolly lived a full and interesting life as documented in the New York Times. He was an Olympic hammer throw champion, a man involved in a huge international controversy based on love, and an early user of anabolic steroids.
Connolly recognized aggressiveness as a steroids side effect:
In 1991, during a relaxed and lubricated private dinner, I said to Harold Connolly, winner of the 1956 Olympic hammer throw and a perennial world and United States champion: “It’s all timing. If you’d been born later, taken steroids, you could have won a few more gold medals.”
He looked at me incredulously. “You kidding? I was using after 1960. We all were.”
When I first met Harold at a Randalls Island track meet in 1966, I didn’t suspect that his crusty demeanor, generally ascribed to fierce competitiveness and self-consciousness about his arm, was probably made even edgier by drugs. Surly that day, he tried to psych out the young hammer thrower who eventually beat him, and he was dismissive when I asked him about reports that he had subverted the youngster’s Olympic training with misinformation.
Twenty-five years later, at that boozy dinner, and then again last October, in a long, sober interview, he admitted that drugs were certainly heightening his “aggressiveness” back then, which he still felt was their only significant downside for older athletes. Harold was against punitive testing, which he thought did no good (“Most of the athletes I have known would do anything short of killing themselves to improve performance”), and he had come around to oppose drugs for youngsters, although I was never sure whether he really thought there were dangers to developing brains and bodies or whether he was finally being politic.
Connolly relates a day when to achieve at the highest level in the Olympic field events, anabolic steroids was required:
It was after watching American doctors routinely give athletes testosterone injections that Harold decided he could use a little help, too. He started with one or two 10-milligram tablets a day of Dianabol along with proteins. When that had no discernible effect, he moved on to Winstrol and other drugs in “stacking” combinations. It was a standard regimen in the days before testing and prohibition.
As he later told a Senate subcommittee: “I learned that larger doses and more prolonged use increased muscular body weight, overall strength, and aggressiveness, but not speed, flexibility or coordination. My vertical jump went up but so did my blood pressure and cholesterol levels.”
He had plenty of teammates with whom to compare notes. He remembered that during the 1968 Olympic trials, many athletes “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.”
Although he had some reservations (“Every time I felt unusual physical reactions, a twinge here a twinge there, a headache, disrupted sleep or diminished libido, I retreated from the testosterone or steroids — too apprehensive to take them regularly.”) they were not enough to preclude offering his seven children drug advice in pursuit of their athletic careers. Apparently, they didn’t want to use or they listened to Harold’s second wife, Pat Connolly, a three-time Olympian and coach, whose opposition to drugs has been fierce and unrelenting.
Connolly argued that pro athletes should be allowed to use PEDs. However like most of these arguments he likely didn't understand the pragmatic issues involved: at what dose, for what period of time, for what indications, and who will pay the malpractice insurance? (American medicine does not approve medications willy nilly; double blind, controlled research studies are required for EACH indication and EACH compound. There are not even the preliminary studies on these drugs to begin to delineate the benefits and risks.)
The romance? Connolly pursued a Czech discus athlete despite the cold war:
“Pro athletes who can pay for medical guidance should take steroids,” he said. “They can give fans a better performance, a nice luxury. The argument against it is that they are role models and kids will find the black market.
“But the danger factor is ridiculous. How about Nascar and boxers and football players, even without drugs? Maybe some good will come from all this fuss. We’ll find out more about drugs, like we found out more about alcohol and marijuana.”
He’s been appropriately celebrated as a role model for disabled athletes (he was born with a withered left arm) and as a lead in one of sports’ most romantic love stories (he married Olga Fikotova of Czechoslovakia, the ’56 Olympic discus winner) but he should also be appreciated as a complex and seminal elder of the Age of Enhancement.