Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts - The Lord of the (Olympic) Rings

August 19, 2016

Last week, we wrote about the 1904 Olympics Marathon, which has to go down as one of the most dangerous and unintentionally hilarious races of all time. This week, we return to providing interesting facts about the Olympic Games, this time heading over to the Antwerp Olympics of 1920 for a fascinating story about the Olympics rings.

The Olympic flag as we know it is made up of five linking rings. It was designed in 1914 but thanks to the outbreak of World War I, it wasn’t used until 1920 (the 1916 games were understandably cancelled). The flag itself is known for its heavy symbolism – the colours of the rings are chosen because every nation on Earth uses at least one of the colours on their national flag. At every Olympic Games, these rings can be seen everywhere, with the most prominent being on the Olympic Flag itself, which is hoisted up a flag pole in the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony. At the end of the Games, it is then handed over to the mayor of the next host city, where it is held for the next four years until the Olympics finally come to town.

This tradition is something that has gone on since 1924 in Paris through to Seoul in 1988, when the fabric was so worn that a new flag was used. The reason that the Antwerp flag from 1920 wasn’t handed over to Paris in the 1920s is because, well, it had actually gone missing a few days before the Closing Ceremony and nobody had a clue where it had gone. Thought lost forever, it was simply one of those things that provided an interesting fact for those interested in Olympic history.

...Until 1997, when it turned up.

Hal Haig ‘Harry’ Prieste was an American athlete who took part in the 10 metre diving competition at Antwerp in 1920. He won a bronze medal and at the ripe old age of 100 had been invited to a U.S. Olympic committee banquet, where he got talking to a reporter about his experiences in Belgium. Reminiscing about the ‘good old days’, the reporter wished to inform Prieste about his knowledge and told him that the actual flag from the 1920 Olympic Games went missing and had never been found. “I can help you with that,” said Harry, “It’s in my suitcase.”

A night or two before the end of the Antwerp Olympics, spurred on by teammate Duke Kahanamoku, Prieste was dared to climb the flagpole and steal the Olympic flag. Not knowing the flag’s significance way back then and not really sure what do with it, Prieste had simply left the Olympic rings in his suitcase for the next 77 years.  

At a special ceremony at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Prieste returned the Olympic flag to the IOC and received a commemorative medal in return. The flag is now on display at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Bonus Fact: Aged 104 at the time of his death in 2001, Prieste was the world’s oldest former Olympic medallist and the first known Olympian whose lifespan covered three centuries (1896-2001).



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By Henry Fosdike