This year we won’t be able to watch the Olympics, hundreds of well-trained athletes will stay at home, and the whole Summer Olympics will be remembered as the one that wasn’t. A pandemic killed this world-wide sporting event as World War II killed the 1940 and 1944 events.
One hundred years ago, the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, opened with young men and women from 29 nations. Belgium and neighboring France suffered terribly from the tragedy (1914-18) known then as the War to End All Wars, and later as World War I. Citizens of both nations needed a boost to their morale. Pierre de Fredy, Baron of Coubertin, and founder of the modern Olympics, invited young athletes from around the world, intentionally ignoring Germany and its Central Powers, as well as the Ottoman Empire. The new Soviet Union declined to enter after their internal rebellion.
At the opening parade, the new Olympic Flag with five multicolored rings joined in a chain was first flown. Then the activities began, not within the tight three-week schedule of today but spread out from April through September, when the weather in northeast Europe is delightful. At the conclusion of the athletic events, the flag was missing. In the excitement, an American diver scaled the flagpole, loosened the flag, and scuttled down the post into the crowd. Urged on by an unidentified teammate Hal Haig Prieste, an Armenian American born in California in 1896, earned a bronze medal for platform diving. He also pulled off the amazing feat.
Prieste was only five feet tall, agile, and something of a jokester and show-off. He was one of the Keystone Kops of silent movie fame, did comedy acts on Broadway, and even preformed acrobatic skills in the circus.
Sports enthusiasts were baffled, Coubertin and Olympic officials were understandingly proud of the flag but absolutely baffled by its theft. Where could it be? No one knew until 1997 when Prieste was interviewed at an Olympic Committee event. The reporter mentioned the flag mystery. At the age of 101, Hal Haig Prieste blurted out the story of the missing flag and confessed his sin. He decided it was time to reopen the suitcase and return the flag to its rightful owners, the Olympic Committee.
After some restoration, the flag is now on display at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. Graciously accepting a plaque for “donating” the flag to the museum Prieste was forgiven for his prank. Prieste is the only Olympian whose life spanned three centuries. He died on April 19, 2001, at the age of 104. For 77 years he kept the location of the Olympic flag a secret in his old suitcase. What a guy!
Taylor is chairman of the Hunt County Historical Commission. She can be contacted at email@example.com.