Eighty years after he shimmied up a 15-foot flagpole to grab a souvenir, a former Olympic diving medalist handed back his ripped-off trinket — the original Olympic flag.
Hal Haig “Harry” Prieste, now 103 and confined to a wheelchair most of the time, said today that he took the flag as a dare at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium, and kept it in a suitcase.
The flag is now regarded as the first to feature the five rings on a white background that have become the Olympic symbol.
Prieste only discovered its importance during an interview at a U.S. Olympic Committee awards dinner in 1997, when a reporter told him the original flag had gone missing and never been located.
“I thought I ain’t going to be around much longer — it’s no good in a suitcase,” Prieste said after handing the folded linen flag to International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch at the start of the IOC’s annual meeting.
“It was no good to me — I won’t be able to hang it up in my room,” said Prieste, who is considered the oldest living Olympic medalist. “People will think more of me for giving it away than keeping it.”
‘It Was No Good to Me’
IOC vice president Anita DeFrantz introduced Prieste to the session as a “living legend,” adding that he had run in the Olympic torch relay at Atlanta in 1996 at the age of 100. At that age he was still doing push ups and had just quit ice skating.
He also was greeted by IOC member Jacques Rogge, a representative of Belgium, where the flag was snatched.
The flag is slightly discolored and is tattered along the edge where Prieste ripped it off the flagpole, but otherwise in good condition, the USOC said.
After the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Prieste returned to California and embarked on an entertainment career, becoming one of the original Keystone Kops and appearing in 25 movies.
He said Charlie Chaplin was a pal and that he was in the studio when the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy was formed.
He later moved to Broadway, working vaudeville before joining a circus as a comedian and skating in the Ice Follies.
Always the entertainer, Prieste, who is hard of hearing and going blind, ensured he upstaged the IOC meetings going on inside the Regent Hotel in downtown Sydney.
Gaining some momentum after a slow start, the veteran showman managed to stand up from his wheelchair on occasions and hold court for a throng of reporters and TV cameras.
And he didn’t want the curtain to come down when officials tried to usher the impromptu press conference outside.
Entertainer Stole the Show
“Where’s the TV camera gone,” Prieste said as he was being relocated.
He flew into Sydney late Sunday, two days after leaving his nursing home in Camden, N.J., and said he hopes to attend the opening ceremony Friday before departing Australia next week.
“I’m proud to be part of the ceremony,” he said. “When I give [the flag] away, it makes me feel good, I made good use of the flag.
“You can’t be selfish about these things.”
Carolyn La Maina, a long-time friend who accompanied Prieste Down Under, said the springboard bronze medalist from eight decades ago still enjoyed pizza and root beer and the occasional chocolate-coated cherry.
“He’s in great shape really, but he’s losing his sight and he can’t hear very well, so his sense of taste gives him something to live for,” she said.