Philip Barker

This week the five Olympic rings assumed virtual form at the first International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session to be held online, but 100 years ago they were raised for real for the first time above an Olympic stadium.

IOC President Pierre de Coubertin was delighted to see it fly above the 1920 Games city of Antwerp.

"Its glorious colours were displayed everywhere. It had never appeared at an Olympic gathering," he said. "With its five entwined circles, multi colours on a white background, evoking the five parts of the world united by Olympism, and at the same time reproducing the colours of every nation.

"Its popularity was great, so great that a group of athletes, one fine night, in the town, carried off everything so as to bring home with them this tangible souvenir."

The chief culprit was bronze medal-winning diver Hal Prieste from the United States. It is thought that he performed the escapade with the encouragement of double Olympic 100 metres freestyle champion Duke Kahanamoku.

It was perhaps appropriate that Prieste went on to enjoy a movie career as one of the "Keystone Cops" in the popular series of silent films.

Eighty years later, he made a surprise appearance at Sydney 2000. IOC vice-president Anita DeFrantz introduced Prieste now to her fellow members before the flag was restored to the IOC. 

Prieste said: "I figured I’d had it a long time, and a lot of my friends had seen it, and I feel happy that I can make somebody happy with it and it will be in good keeping.

"That’s better than having it in that suitcase. I won’t be able to hang it up in my room because I won’t be here. People will think more of me for giving it away than keeping it."

Hal Prieste returned the flag he stole at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp - the first time the rings were ever displayed publicly - to the IOC at Sydney in 2000 ©Getty Images
Hal Prieste returned the flag he stole at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp - the first time the rings were ever displayed publicly - to the IOC at Sydney in 2000 ©Getty Images

Prieste was by no means the last Olympic athlete to bag a flag. Australia’s Wilfrid Kent Hughes, later to receive a knighthood and be organising chief of the 1956 Melbourne Games, confessed that he too had acquired a souvenir at the Antwerp Games where he competed in the hurdles.

Although the flag first flew at the Games in 1920, it had been devised in 1914 and was raised at the opening of the stadium in Alexandria.

The rings were also to have flown at the 1916 Berlin Olympics but the Games were never to take place because of war.

Perhaps Coubertin maybe sensed the conflagration to come when he asked: "Are these rings solidly riveted together? Will war someday shatter the Olympic framework?"

He explained that they signified "the five parts of the world now won over to Olympism, ready to accept its fruitful rivalries. In addition, the six colours combined reproduce the colours of every country without exception."

In modern times they have often been misrepresented. At Sochi 2014, giant rings which could be seen en route to the airport specifically, but incorrectly, assigned black to Africa and yellow to Asia. A similar error had been made at the official merchandising store at Sydney 2000 and sometimes also in books.

In the aftermath of the 1920 Games, Antwerp's municipal authorities commissioned an embroidered flag to be made for the ceremonial handover. Known as the "Antwerp Flag" it never flew in the stadium but was displayed in the municipal buildings of the host city concerned.

In 1924, Antwerp presented their flag to the Parisians, and they in turn passed it to Amsterdam in 1928.

People pose with the Olympic rings in Tokyo ©Getty Images
People pose with the Olympic rings in Tokyo ©Getty Images

As searchlights pierced the sky in 1936, a group from the preceding host city of Los Angeles handed the flag to Julius Lippert, Nazi Mayor of Berlin. In turn he was scheduled to pass it to Tokyo in 1940 but those Games never took place.

What happened to the flag? Some news agencies reported that the Allied armies happened across it during the final days of the war. 1936 Organising Committee general secretary Carl Diem also claimed in his memoirs: "One of the first things I did after the collapse was to look for the Olympic Flag, which had been given to us for safekeeping. It was found in the safe of the Stadtbank."

Whatever the truth, there was no delegation from Berlin in 1948.

The official report recounts, "An officer of the Scots Guards stepped forward and handed to the President the historic ceremonial flag. The President, allowing the flag to float for a moment before the Tribune, then entrusted it to the Lord Mayor of London." The ceremony was accompanied by a fanfare from the Household Cavalry.

In 1957, at the IOC Session in Sofia, a resolution "decided that the handing of the Olympic flag referred to in the Closing Ceremony will now take place at the Opening Ceremony".

The change was implemented in 1960 at Squaw Valley. The Winter Olympics now had its own handover flag, donated by the 1952 hosts Oslo.

Political boycotts were the catalyst for the next major change which came 20 years later.

The Canadians stayed away from Moscow 1980, which made it impossible for Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau to hand over the flag. Instead, Sandra Henderson and Stéphane Préfontaine, the teenagers who had lit Montreal’s Olympic Cauldron in 1976, also handed over the flag.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch soon suggested "a slight change of protocol in that the Olympic flag, instead of remaining in the city which had organised the Games should be passed onto the next host city during the Closing Ceremony".

The Olympic flag is handed over to Seoul at the Los Angeles 1984 Closing Ceremony ©Getty Images
The Olympic flag is handed over to Seoul at the Los Angeles 1984 Closing Ceremony ©Getty Images

At the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, organisers still received the flag from Lake Placid but Samaranch’s change was implemented at the Summer Games. Harry Usher of the Los Angeles Organising Committee (LAOOC) advised IOC members that: "The Olympic flag will be received from Moscow during the Opening Ceremony and that we will transfer the flag to the Seoul Olympic Organising Committee at our closing ceremony as requested by the IOC."

In fact, after the Soviets staged their own retaliatory boycott, the Antwerp Flag was brought into the Coliseum by IOC vice-president Louis Guirandou-N'Diaye, his fellow IOC member Prince Alexandre de Mérode from Belgium and two surviving members of the 1920 US Olympic team - diving gold medallist Aileen Riggin Soule and Alice Lord Landon.

It remained in Los Angeles for only 15 days, before LAOOC officials Paul Ziffren and Usher trooped the flag into the Closing Ceremony where it was received by the Mayor of Seoul Yum Bo-hyun.

The official Olympic Review also observed that "after fourteen Olympiads, time had begun to take its toll, somewhat dimming its lustre. The Organising Committee of the Seoul Games had got wind of this and decided to present the IOC with a new standard."

A new handover flag was fashioned in Korean silk. At the request of the Korean Olympic Committee, it was formally handed to Roh Tae-woo, then President of the Seoul Olympic Organising Committee (SLOOC) at the 1985 IOC Session in Berlin.

Roh called it a "symbol of world peace and harmony of mankind as represented in the ideals of the Olympic Movement".

By the time the flag was next seen in public, Roh was no longer SLOOC President but head of state in South Korea.

The Koreans had been very enthusiastic about the power of the rings and Korean Olympic Committee President Kim Chong-ha sent a telex message asking Samaranch "to approve hoisting the Olympic flag at the prominent place of the city hall until the closing of the Games to inspire the Olympic mood into all citizens".

By now, Samaranch had made the rings more prominent still by suggesting "should henceforth swear on the Olympic flag and not the flag of his country".

Women’s handball star Son Mi-na and men’s basketball player Huh Jae took this a stage further at the 1988 Seoul Opening Ceremony and grasped the new Olympic handover flag.

At the same Ceremony, skydivers formed the Olympic rings high above the stadium.

Japan's Blue Impulse team pays homage to the Olympic rings earlier this year - recreating the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo ©Getty Images
Japan's Blue Impulse team pays homage to the Olympic rings earlier this year - recreating the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo ©Getty Images

In 1992, a gigantic Olympic flag was unfurled in the Barcelona Olympic Stadium.

"All athletes from all over the world are competing under the same flag so we thought it would not be a bad idea to turn that into reality," said Luis Bassat, head of the ceremony producers. The flag was hugely popular and fragments were later given away in a promotion by a Barcelona newspaper.

There rings were created in fire across the stadium at Athens 2004, and LED beads rose to form them at Beijing 2008.

The malfunction at Sochi 2014 caused angst for show director Konstantin Ernst and spawned a parody t-shirt, which he sportingly wore for his last media conference.

Next year, the depiction of the Olympic rings in Tokyo’s Opening Ceremony will be keenly awaited. In 1964, they broke new ground when the crack Blue Impulse aerobatics team described the rings in the sky.

This was not forgotten by Tokyo 2020, which invited the current members of the team to repeat the performance when the Olympic Flame touched down on Japanese soil back in March.