Flag Returned by 103-Year-Old Olympian

ByJohn Pye

S Y D N E Y, Australia, Sept. 11, 2000 -- Eighty years after he shimmied up a15-foot flagpole to grab a souvenir, a former Olympic divingmedalist handed back his ripped-off trinket — the original Olympicflag.

Hal Haig “Harry” Prieste, now 103 and confined to a wheelchairmost of the time, said today that he took theflag as a dare at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium, and kept itin a suitcase.

The flag is now regarded as the first to feature the five ringson a white background that have become the Olympic symbol.

Prieste only discovered its importance during an interview at aU.S. Olympic Committee awards dinner in 1997, when a reporter toldhim the original flag had gone missing and never been located.

“I thought I ain’t going to be around much longer — it’s nogood in a suitcase,” Prieste said after handing the folded linenflag to International Olympic Committee president Juan AntonioSamaranch 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 myroom,” said Prieste, who is considered the oldest living Olympicmedalist. “People will think more of me for giving it away thankeeping it.”

‘It Was No Good to Me’

IOC vice president Anita DeFrantz introduced Prieste to thesession as a “living legend,” adding that he had run in theOlympic torch relay at Atlanta in 1996 at the age of 100. At thatage he was still doing push ups and had just quit ice skating.

He also was greeted by IOC member Jacques Rogge, arepresentative of Belgium, where the flag was snatched.

The flag is slightly discolored and is tattered along the edgewhere Prieste ripped it off the flagpole, but otherwise in goodcondition, the USOC said.

After the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Prieste returned to Californiaand embarked on an entertainment career, becoming one of theoriginal Keystone Kops and appearing in 25 movies.

He said Charlie Chaplin was a pal and that he was in the studiowhen the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy was formed.

He later moved to Broadway, working vaudeville before joining acircus as a comedian and skating in the Ice Follies.

Always the entertainer, Prieste, who is hard of hearing andgoing blind, ensured he upstaged the IOC meetings going on insidethe Regent Hotel in downtown Sydney.

Gaining some momentum after a slow start, the veteran showmanmanaged to stand up from his wheelchair on occasions and hold courtfor a throng of reporters and TV cameras.

And he didn’t want the curtain to come down when officials triedto usher the impromptu press conference outside.

Entertainer Stole the Show

“Where’s the TV camera gone,” Prieste said as he was beingrelocated.

He flew into Sydney late Sunday, two days after leaving hisnursing home in Camden, N.J., and said he hopes to attend theopening 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 theflag.

“You can’t be selfish about these things.”

Carolyn La Maina, a long-time friend who accompanied PriesteDown Under, said the springboard bronze medalist from eight decadesago still enjoyed pizza and root beer and the occasionalchocolate-coated cherry.

“He’s in great shape really, but he’s losing his sight and hecan’t hear very well, so his sense of taste gives him something tolive for,” she said.

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