If Not Now, When?

If you see something that is wrong, you can do two things: act or wait. Acting is not easy; it may cost you your friends, your reputation, or your job. But in many cases it is what is needed. If you wait for someone else to change things then change will likely never come. The old saying goes “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” That was definitely true in the case of Harold Connolly, the man who taught me that you can’t compromise or back down on matters of principle.

» Related Content: I write an annual remembrance of Harold Connolly and his contributions to our sport. Check out our other posts here.

Remembering the fighter

Today it has been seven years since Connolly passed away and every year on the anniversary of his death I write a post to try and keep his spirit alive. I typically focus on his passion and his fighting spirit. Harold came from a long line of fighters and never backed down. More than that, he stood proud and told things like they were. His rival George Frenn once told Sports Illustrated how direct he was with his competitors:

“Then the day before the meet he walks up and tells me he’s going to break my world record. And, he says, he’s going to use my weight to do it with. My record was 68-7½. On his first throw, Harold does 72-2¾.”

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When you are that direct, you make some enemies in the process. And there were lots of people that disliked Connolly. Sports Illustrated also retold one story of what happened when one rival beat Connolly:

“In 1966, after a certain hammer thrower beat Connolly for the first time, he raced over and screamed, “I finally beat you, you old man.” Then he spat in Connolly’s face.”

These stories help illustrate Connolly’s fighting spirit and how that went over with others. But it wasn’t the only fight Connolly made. He had bigger principles to stand up for later in his life.

Fighting racism and injustice

Already during his career Connolly started using that spirit to make a more just world. To start with, his first marriage was also an act of standing up for love in the face of politics. Later he waged war with the AAU, which steadfastly held to arcane amateurism rules while athletes suffered as a result. His stand cost him support, money, and the chances to represent the US internationally. Most athletes supported him, but few spoke up for fear of similar consequences. Connolly was unique as that was the reason he did speak up. As a person of authority he would be listened to, and as a veteran he was less concerned with the consequences. By starting the conversation, many others joined in and they eventually helped improve athlete rights.

In 1968 Connolly joined in an even more public and controversial fight by supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights work against racism. What most people remember from the project is how Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their hands on the podium. In Smith’s autobiography he explains how Connolly and the Harvard crew team were their only white supporters on the team. Professor Harry Edwards, the lead architect of the projects, credits Connolly for great support and reminding him that the “struggle was against racism, not against White people.” Paul Hoffman, the coxswain of the Harvard crew said that Connolly’s philosophy was simple: “the best way to end it was to stand up for what was right and point out what was wrong.”

In speaking with Connolly’s former athlete Kevin McMahon this week, McMahon described Connolly as “unafraid to imagine a world so much more beautiful and just than what he had witnessed in his lifetime.” Not only was Connolly unafraid to imagine, he was unafraid to act despite the consequences.

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Fighting the athletics establishment

In the last decade of Connolly’s life, he focused the fight on getting wider acceptance for his niche sport. He quickly realized that waiting around for the USATF to accept the hammer throw as a youth event would take forever. He started breaking some eggs again, and forced the issue using his name and connections. In talking personally with members of the USATF Youth Committee several years ago, I was surprised at the level of hate they had for Connolly over a relatively petty matter of whether kids can throw a steel ball or not. Looking at it now, they were the eggs he was trying to break. (It therefore came as no surprise then that many Youth Committee members were subsequently suspended by the USATF in an unrelated power struggle.)

Despite the resistance, he made progress. Thanks in large part to increased opportunities for the hammer throw in the Junior Olympic program, youth hammer grew nationwide at an unprecedented level and produced two World Junior champions. Still, since 2010 there has been no one to break any eggs, and growth has stalled as a result.

Everyone needs some enemies

Victor Hugo once wrote:

“You have enemies? Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea. It is the cloud which thunders around everything that shines. Fame must have enemies, as light must have gnats. Do not bother yourself about it; disdain. Keep your mind serene as you keep your life clear.”

When Harold described some of his interactions with USATF he would convey his frustration, but always have a little laugh too. He knew that their stubborn resistance helped prove he was right. Rather than being scared of making some enemies, wear yours like a badge of honor. It confirms you had the guts to stand up and act on what you believe in.