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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pettit

Parry and Thrust: A Flagbearer's Tale

The Choice was His to Make

By the time Al Oerter made his fourth U.S. Olympic team, he had always followed a very precise plan covering the 1,460 days between the Games to progressively ready himself to be at peak physical and mental performance up to the very day of the discus competition. He made the analogy of being like a magnifying glass that continually consolidated the sun’s rays until he achieved laser-like focus and maximum heat. This process began immediately after his first gold medal in Melbourne in 1956, and proved to be successful in Rome (1960), Tokyo (1964), and leading up to Mexico City in 1968. The goal of this long process was not necessarily to win a medal, but to get the most out of himself on the day of competition.

Al reflected on the method he employed in the few days prior to the Games of the XIXth Olympiad: “I always prided myself on being ready the day of the Olympic competition, and the way I did that was to work my tail off for all of those years right up to the three days prior to the discus event. On the third day before, I would work at half speed. The second day before, I would do nothing but lie down and read some kind of mystery novel. The day before, I would be doing the same thing; just lying around waiting for the competition and still reading the mystery book that I could read awhile, put down and go to sleep. I was getting my nervous energy level up to the point where I could carry that into the ring, control it, and use it effectively in my throwing. I developed all of that nervous energy in Mexico City by just lying around and not worrying about the actual competition to come.

“Too many throwers and too many athletes have to reassure themselves that the throwing technique is still there; that the strength levels are still there; the intensity levels are still there. They will throw right up to the day of the competition and, in fact, even the morning of the event. You are obviously wearing yourself out. You’re taking away that psych. If you can control it, that energy will produce a better result on the field. In those last few days, there is nothing else you can learn or improve upon. All you will do is wear yourself out and take away capability.”

Al Oerter, Olympic Village in Mexico City, 1968
Al Oerter, Olympic Village in Mexico City, 1968

A reporter from Long Island’s Newsday, Stan Isaacs, who Al had gotten to know quite well, was on assignment in Mexico City to chronicle, first hand, Al’s experience at the Olympic Games. Isaacs was writing daily articles, and he honestly didn’t think Al had a chance in hell at even medaling. He had watched his subpar performance at the U.S. Trials and observed his Olympic competitors outthrow him by a large margin in training in the week leading up to the start of the Games. “At your age,” Isaacs asked Al, “how can you be so confident?”

Newsday Sports Columnist Stan Isaacs (1929 - 2013)
Newsday Sports Columnist Stan Isaacs (1929 - 2013)

Before the opening ceremonies, Isaacs spoke with Hal Connolly, also a four-time Olympian, to get some perspective on Oerter and his chances in the discus competition to come. Harold Vincent “Hal” Connolly, from Somerville, MA, was the 1956 gold medalist in the hammer throw, and had made the same four U.S. Olympic teams as Al. He had overcome severe physical limitations of nerve damage to his left arm since birth, but refused to give in, even after fracturing his arm 13 times as a child. Hal was still a world-class competitor, had set the world record six times, and he and Oerter had both worked with the same incredible level of intensity over long periods of time.

Isaacs wrote that Connolly observed of Oerter, “In the opinion of many of us, he is the greatest field-event athlete of the century. There’s a magic about him when he’s competing. He’s nervous before the meet. He doesn’t eat well and his hands shake. But once the event is about to start, a calmness settles over him. The other athletes see it, and it intimidates them. They watch him, and they are afraid of what he might do.”

 Hal Connolly, Gold Medalist in Hammer Throw, 1956
Hal Connolly, Gold Medalist in Hammer Throw, 1956

In 1968, the Olympic Opening Ceremonies were to take place on October 12th, and the 2-day Discus competition was scheduled for October 14th (qualifying round) and 15th (final round). On October 10th, Bob Kane of the U.S. Olympic Committee approached Al with some startling news. “Al, the Olympic Committee has gone through a very thorough selection process,” he announced. “For all of your achievements and longevity, you’ve been chosen to lead the U.S. contingent and carry the American flag in the Opening Ceremonies here, in Mexico City.”

Al’s mind started to rapidly synthesize what Kane was saying. He had achieved an elder statesman status on the Olympic Team and, because he had previously won three gold medals, was given the honor of carrying in the American flag, even though he felt that the Olympic Committee thought “he didn’t have a chance in hell in these Games.” Al remembered, “I had no idea how the selection process worked; whether it be by vote or direction, but they selected me. My immediate reaction was thanks, but no thanks.”

“What do you mean, Al?” Kane asked incredulously. “This is a high honor. We’ve gone through this selection process and you’ve been chosen.” Al said, “I realize this is a high honor. You get your picture around the world. You’re carrying the American flag around. You’re proud as can be but, Bob, I’m competing in just a few days and I’m competing against some guys that have some real capability. I’m not here to participate in the Opening Ceremonies because I want to save every ounce of nervous energy that I’ve been building for the competition and not waste it walking around a stadium on a long, hot afternoon.”

Eight and four years earlier, Al had chosen not to attend the Opening Ceremonies in Rome and Tokyo for the same reason. Even though he was extremely thankful to be honored as the flagbearer, he had to politely decline Kane’s offer. Al said,” I declined because I was there to compete. It was my loss that I couldn’t carry the flag.” Kane wouldn’t allow it. “Well Al, you’ve been chosen to do this and we want you to do it and you’re going to do it!” For about an hour, Oerter continued to push back while Kane relentlessly pressed him.

The Olympic Committee finally realized that Oerter was not about to accept their wishes, and with the Opening Ceremonies in a couple of days, went back to him with a request. “Alright Al, if you’re refusing to do this, then we want you to choose who is going to carry the flag and lead the American team here in Mexico City.” Al’s head was buzzing. He didn’t understand why the committee was putting this decision on him. He was so focused on his upcoming competition, and not thinking about flag ceremonies, that he couldn’t think of anyone in the moment.

He sought out Hal Connolly, his throwing colleague with the same four Olympic teams-resume as Al, to share what was going on and discuss selecting the most deserving candidate to carry the flag. Al appeared nervous when he mentioned to Hal, “They want to reward me for my longevity and now they’ve put this on me. On this team, I don’t even think I’m the most deserving in the first place. Who are they missing?” Just like in competition, Connolly noticed that a calmness started to envelop Al. As the two men began to slowly suggest names of their Olympic teammates from memory, their eyes met and one of them said, ”Janice Romary!” (afterwards, neither Al nor Hal could recall who said Janice’s name first, as the realization of both was almost instantaneous). A fencer, Janice Romary had made her sixth U.S. Olympic team in Mexico City. Al thought, ”Now that’s something I haven’t done and Hal hasn’t done. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure if anyone has ever done that.” He was right!

Born Janice-Lee York in 1927, Romary learned fencing at Austrian film director Max Reinhardt’s Dramatic Workshop in Hollywood, California, a club managed by her father, Shelby York. Janice attended the University of Southern California where she continued to hone her skills with the USC Fencing Club. She fenced for the U.S. in the women’s individual foil from the age of 21 at the 1948 Olympics and successively through to the 1968 Games: the first woman in the world to compete in six Olympiads. She placed fourth in 1952 and 1956.

 Fencer Janice-Lee York (West Coast Fencing Archive)
Fencer Janice-Lee York (West Coast Fencing Archive)

Janice Romary won the U.S. foil championship ten times between 1950 and 1968, missing the 1959 event due to pregnancy. No other fencer, man or woman, has ever won more. Leading up to the 1968 Olympics, she won a Pan American Games gold medal in 1967, and claimed silver and bronze medals in 1963. Also in 1967, she was the recipient of the World Wide Sportsman’s Award. During the late ‘50’s to the mid-60’s, she appeared on the popular game shows, To Tell the Truth and What’s My Line? and on The Steve Allen Show, the precursor to The Tonight Show. In 1965, she was featured in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd.

Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" 7/9/1965
Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" 7/9/1965

For Al Oerter, his selection of Janice as the U.S. flag-bearer was obvious and well-deserved. He went before the U.S. Olympic Committee and told them that he had selected Janice Romary, the first woman in history to make six Olympic teams, to lead the U.S. delegation and carry Old Glory in the Opening Ceremonies. The immediate reaction was tumultuous and faced strong objections. Al remembers one committeeman said, “No, we are not going to have a woman carry the flag into the stadium because it breaks tradition.” At the time, their chauvinistic stance was common and very firm. They simply didn’t want a woman carrying the flag regardless of how many Olympic teams she had made. Al may have thought that Mexico City’s 7,500-foot elevation might be causing USOC-brain fog. When Al had selected Janice Romary as the most deserving person to bear the flag, in the purest sense, gender never entered his mind. Now, he was laser-focused on doing the right thing, as he always did.

If you weren’t aware of Al Oerter’s acumen in applying maximum pressure to get superior results within the discus ring, then you have no idea of his ability outside the circle. Al immediately went to Stan Isaacs to disclose details of the "flag-bearer stalemate." Al recounted, “I told Stan that they asked me to select a person to carry the flag in the Opening Ceremonies and I chose that person; but they are balking at my selection because it’s a woman. It’s rather an interesting story.” Isaacs said slowly and with deep meaning, “Yeah, a very interesting story.”

Evidently, the Olympic Committee got wind of Al’s conversation with the press, and about two hours later they came back to him with a change in attitude. They said, “Al, that was a great selection…your picking Janice to carry the flag. Well done!”

On October 12, 1968, Janice-Lee Romary executed another first for women when she carried the American flag into the Estadio Olímpico Universitario, and led the U.S. Olympic team in the Opening Ceremonies. Many years later, Janice recalled in an interview with Newsday, “I felt like the most special person in the world. I have never felt so proud in my whole life.” Her daughter, Lisa Romary-Mosher, remembered, “People had this stereotype of what a woman had to be to be an athlete. She kind of broke boundaries of what a woman athlete could be."

Janice Romary leads U.S. Opening Ceremony, 1968
Janice Romary leads U.S. in Opening Ceremony, 1968

In Sports Illustrated’s recap of the 1968 Olympics, the “flagbearer” story was highlighted: “Perhaps the most popular of American victories was that of Al Oerter, who brings his discus around every four years, quietly wins his gold medal and goes home. Oerter could have carried the U.S. flag in the opening ceremonies this year but deferred to Mrs. Janice York Romary, a fencer, when he found out she was to be in her sixth Olympiad. Mrs. Romary went out and shortened her skirt an inch and a half for the ceremony so she "wouldn't look like an old dowdy," and Oerter went out a few days later and won his fourth consecutive gold medal (SI 10/28/1968).”

Romary's association with the Olympics and the sport of fencing continued well beyond 1968 and her competitive years. In 1976 in Montreal, she was the USOC administrator responsible for U.S. women athletes in all events. At the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, she was selected as the commissioner of fencing. In a 2007 article in Herald and News, her husband Charles said, “She was a super organizer. She held the team together. She had to be a mother confessor to athletes, and not just fencers, and she had to placate coaches.” Charles Romary, was also an epee and sabre fencer, events that did not exist at the Olympic level for women until 1996. He took up the sport after marrying Janice in 1953 and was ranked in the U.S. Men’s Top 10. Daughter Lisa described her mother as “funny and mercurial, extravagantly outgoing, but you didn't dare put your elbows on the dinner table. Part of the thing Mom was good at was unifying people. Part of her thing was to bring athletes and sports together.”

Al Oerter would later reflect, “The best photograph, as far as I’m concerned, that came out of the 1968 Olympics was Janice with a big smile on her face, her back straight and the flag out there, just proud to be carrying that flag in the Opening Ceremony. If you look closely behind her, there are about a half-dozen grumpy old men, the Olympic Committee, following her into the stadium. That photo has always been one of the special things in the Olympic Games for me. I would have been thrilled to carry the flag and that truly is a high honor.”

One of Al Oerter's favorite 1968 Olympic photos
Al Oerter's favorite photo from the 1968 Olympics

Janice Romary was inducted into the United States Fencing Association Hall of Fame in the 1970’s, won the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. After retiring from fencing, she moved to Klamath Falls, Oregon, but still attended the Olympic Games in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000).

Both Janice and Al modestly said that their claim to fame was their longevity. Janice-Lee York Romary died in Klamath Falls on May 31, 2007, five months before Al Oerter’s passing. They will be forever linked, as very few athletes in the United States impacted sports, and the Olympic Games, the way Janice Romary and Al Oerter did. A small handful of critics would say that is not a fair comparison, since Al won four gold medals and Janice did not medal in the Olympics. Al Oerter once remarked, “Competition in its best form is a test of self. It has nothing to do with medals. The winner is the person who gets the most out of themselves.”

By the way, the formerly skeptical reporter, Stan Isaacs, celebrated Al’s 1968 gold medal performance in his 2008 book, Ten Moments that Shook the Sports World. After Mexico City, they would go on to become the closest of friends.

In 1956, as part of a storybook romance, Hal Connolly married Czech Olympian Olga Fitotová, who was the women’s discus gold medalist at the Melbourne Games. In 1958, they both appeared on To Tell the Truth. After that, Olga Connolly made every U.S. Olympic team in the discus from 1960 to 1972 when, in her last Games, she was selected by the USOC to carry the American flag during the Opening Ceremonies in Munich.

In March of this year, the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board opted to change protocol guidelines for the Opening Ceremonies starting next year in Tokyo with the postponed 2020 Games. This will give nations an option to allow one female athlete and one male athlete to jointly carry their flag at the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympics. This decision comes 52 years after that day in October,1968, when the American flag was carried around the Olympic stadium by Janice-Lee Romary. Talk about longevity!

Janice-Lee York Romary (1927 - 2007)
Janice-Lee York Romary (1927 - 2007)

© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved

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