How an Armenian Athlete Stole the First Olympic Flag, Returned It 80 Years Later & Got a Medal

It was symbol of peace, a token of renewed hope after World War I, and when the Olympic flag with the five rings representing five parts of the world - Africa, Asia, Australia, the Americas and Europe - was raised for the first time at the opening ceremonies of the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp Belgium, it was a cause for immense celebration.

A new chapter in sportsmanship and humanity had begun.

But by the end of the Games, the first ever olympic flag had mysteriously vanished. Gone. Disappeared. Lost forever.

 

Opening ceremony, 1920 Olympics

 

Hal Prieste (previously Haig Keshishian) was born in Fresno, Calif., on Nov. 23, 1896, to Haiganoosh and Mamas "Mark", a shoemaker. The couple had arrived in America that same year, escaping the looming troubles in the Ottoman Empire.

During the first World War, Prieste joined the Navy. He discovered he could swim and dive. He had a natural talent for it. When he left the Navy, he was told that he should try out for the Olympics. So he did.

He attended the tryouts in Alameda, California and came first in diving, beating the national champion Clyde Swendsen. The L.A. Athletic Club paid for his trip to New York to train at the New York Athletic Club and prepare for the Olympics. 

At the 1920 games, Prieste was representing the USA diving team. He won a bronze medal in platform diving. His diving medal came with a third-place finish behind his teammate Clarence Pinkston and Erik Adlerz of Sweden.

 

Hal Prieste, 1920

 

''It was a very cold, damp day,'' Prieste recalled in an interview with The Asbury Park Press of New Jersey in 1999.

''I remember there were two guys holding a bathrobe and I would wear it and they would call my name and say, 'America,' and I would take it off and go dive and then come back and put the bathrobe on.’'

He was in last place after the three compulsory dives from a height of 16 feet. Then, at 32 feet, he said, things changed.

''They let you do whatever you wanted. You could get more points by doing harder dives. I did the hardest because I wanted to get the most points.''

He believed that if he had done better on the compulsory dives, ''I probably would have won.’’

 

 Diving at the 1920 Olympic games

 

As the games drew to a close, his friend and fellow medal winning athlete Duke Kahanamoku, who is credited for popularizing the ancient Hawaiian sport of surfing, set Prieste a challenge: get the Olympic flag. 

Prieste took the dare.

He climbed up a 15-foot flagpole at the end of the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, and stole the official flag.

The Irish linen flag came home, alongside Prieste's bronze olympic medal, to Los Angeles.

 

 

In the years that followed, Prieste would pursue a career in show business. He became an original Keystone Kop (a group of incompetent cops featured in various silent films), played vaudeville houses, did a comedy act on Broadway, performed as an acrobat in a traveling circus and was a figure skater in an ice show.

Hal Prieste, circa 1940

 

He also appeared in 25 films, working alongside Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, who he considered a friend. He was in the studio when the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy was formed.

 

Charlie Chaplin 

 

''I can help you with that,'' said Hal. ''It's in my suitcase.”

 

In 1997, when Prieste was 100 years old, he was invited to a United States Olympic Committee banquet, as the oldest surviving Olympic medal winner in the world.

During an interview with Prieste, a reporter mentioned that the Olympic Committee had never been able to find out what had happened to the original Olympic flag.

''I can help you with that,'' said Prieste.

''It's in my suitcase.”

For 77 years, unbeknownst to anyone, he had kept the flag neatly folded in a suitcase.

 Olympic flag stolen by Hal Prieste in 1920

 

''It's very pretty with lots of rings in it.'' he told the NY times.

He did not regard the flag as valuable or worth returning until being informed by the reporter that the International Olympic Committee had been unable to find the missing Antwerp flag, the first one with the five rings.

But, he knew the time had come to give it back.

''I had it a long time,” he said.” “A lot of my friends have seen it. You can't be selfish about these things. It's no good to me. I can't hang it in my room. People will think more of me by giving it away than by keeping it.’'

When told that he would be giving the flag to Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Olympic Committee president, Prieste said, ''What's he going to do with it?’'

He returned the flag 3 years later at the start of the Olympic Committee’s annual meeting in Sydney, Australia, ahead of the 2000 games that year.

 

 Hal Prieste holds the flag he is returning to the Olympic Committee, Sydney, Australia, 2000

 

“I thought I ain’t going to be around much longer — it’s no good in a suitcase,”

 

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.

The flag was slightly discolored and tattered along the edge where Prieste ripped it off the flagpole, but otherwise in good condition, the Olympic Committee said.

 

 

“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 committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who gave him a commemorative Olympic medal in a box.

 

 

"What is it? Kleenex?" the 103-year old reacted.

 

''To him, his whole life has been a comedy routine,'' said Carolyn LaMaina, a longtime friend who acted as his carer in recent years.

''He danced with the girls and had himself a great time.’' she said, speaking of the event that day.

According to LaMaina, Prieste kept in great shape his whole life, but also enjoyed pizza and root beer and the occasional chocolate-coated cherry.

He died on April 19, 2001 in Camden, New Jersey, at the age of 104.

 

 

At the time, he was the world's oldest former Olympic medalist and the first known Olympian whose lifespan covered three centuries (1896 - 2001).

 The Antwerp Olympic Flag is now on display at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, with a plaque thanking him for donating it.

  

 

 

Hal Prieste's grave, InglewoodLos Angeles CountyCaliforniaUSA

 

© 2021 Ara the Rat

 

Comments

Thank you for sharing. We certainly need uplifting stories like this.

Annie on Aug 15, 2021

I can’t believe how an Armenian immigrant , with so much grief carrying in his heart and mind, in such a short time would accomplish so much. Athletic I understand, comedy ? With his history ?
Amazing !!!

Sona khanjian on Aug 13, 2021

I loved this story,we Amenians ate great.

Betty Karagozian Smith on Aug 09, 2021

I am really touched, thanks for sharing!

Violet on Aug 08, 2021

Una historia emotiva, gracias por compartirla.

Eduardo on Aug 08, 2021

Very touching story, but, at the same time Hilarious.
God Bless Armenia 👍👍

Julie Mesrobian on Aug 07, 2021

What an amazing story, very emotional & inspiring at the same time. Thanks for sharing. I am an Armenian from Sydney Australia

Aida Sarian on Aug 07, 2021

I just love this story, I normally don’t get emotional but I’m all teary eyes now after reading Hieg’s story. I wish today’s Olympic athletes and everyone else to understand what that flag meant! It was his hope for freedom. As it should be to all Armenians .

Ara Aintablian on Aug 03, 2021

Thank you. As a avid watcher of the Olympics, I loved this story.

Diane Boyajian on Aug 02, 2021

Another gem from the archives of little-known Armenian history. Thank you for this!

Nancy Kricorian on Aug 02, 2021

Thanks for this wonderful article. I bet the family changed their last name from Keshishian (meaning priest in turkish) to Prieste to avoid discrimination which was rampant against the newly arrived Armenians in Fresno. We should discover and disseminate the stories like these which I’m sure are many.

Armen on Aug 01, 2021

WHAT A FABULOUS STORY!!! Thank you so much for sharing it!!!

Linda Araz Berenson on Aug 01, 2021

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