Dawn Fraser Part 2: The Infamous Flag Incident of 1964

Dawn Fraser in TokyoDawn Fraser was on top of the world, after winning gold and silver medals, adding to her haul of 8 medals over three Olympiads. She was honored with the task of carrying the Australian flag in the closing ceremony on Saturday, October 24.

But it was Friday, and the night was still young. And when you’re Dawn Fraser, you can’t help but let a bit of the larrikin out.

The competitions were over and the party was on at The Imperial Hotel. The Australian swim team had gone home already, but Fraser had the entire Australian hockey team to party with. As she described in her book, Below the Surface – Confessions of an Olympic Champion, “at one stage one of the Olympic officials was wearing a kimono while the owner of the kimono was dancing about in a large Australian dressing gown.”

Around 2:30 am, a little less than 12 hours prior to when Fraser was scheduled to march into the National Olympic Stadium carrying her country’s flag, a plan was being hatched. Fraser and her friends were going to embark on a shady tradition of sorts in the Olympics – pinching flags.

A friend of hers, whom she refers to as an official, tells her that he’s found an ideal place to “pick up some good flags.” Fraser, the official and a hockey player slip away from the party, and walk through the darkened Tokyo streets until they arrive at the Emperor’s Palace. Again, here’s how Fraser explains it in her autobiography, Below the Surface:

We followed the moat for a while, and suddenly we were in the middle of a large flutter of flags. The flagpoles were sprouting like exclamation marks all round us. We chose a fine big Olympic banner with the five circles on it, and one of my companions bunked himself up on the shoulders of the other. They swayed around a little, and they swore once or twice; but finally they pulled the flag loose. ‘Quick,’ said one of them. ‘Cop this.’ I took the flag. ‘Go for your life,’ said the other. ‘The demons are coming.’

The “demons” were the police. Fraser tried to hide in a large shrub, but the police found her and started beating on her feet with a baton, so she threw the flag away and ran again. She saw a bicycle and hopped on it to get her further from the police “yelping and whistling” behind her. After all, she was making her escape on a policeman’s bike. That’s when she saw the Palace moat, and thought she could disappear into its darkness. “I figured that no policeman would ever catch me once I hit the moat,” she wrote.

Dawn Fraser in Olympic Village_The Olympic Century - XVIII Olympiad - Volume 16
Dawn Fraser in Olympic Village, from the book The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16
In the panic, she ran into a brick wall, jumped 8 feet down into the moat onto more concrete and badly twisted her ankle. That’s when the police caught her.

At the Marunouchi Police Station, where she was lugged off to, no one would believe that she was not only an Olympic athlete, but that she was the world-famous Dawn Fraser. She had no identification on her, so the best she could do in the middle of the night was to contact a friend to bring her identification, and vouch for her. This friend was Lee Robinson, who was filming a documentary about Dawn Fraser. He brought the ID, the police were finally convinced that she was who she said she was, that she needed to be on her way so she could march at the head of the Australian squad in the closing ceremony, and that wouldn’t it be a good idea to, you know, keep this hush hush?

The police captain did indeed agree, and Fraser held the Australian flag aloft in front of 75,000 people some ten hours later, visibly limping for unknown reason.

The business of the police captain was not yet finished. During the Closing Ceremony, he paid a visit to Fraser’s guarantor, Lee Robinson, and handed him a package for Miss Fraser, “with the compliments of the Police.” It was the stolen Olympic flag!

Unfortunately, the Australian authorities were not as amused as the Japanese authorities as they proceeded to ban Fraser from competitive swimming for 10 years! But Fraser knew her career was already coming to a close. A brilliant career, for one of Australia’s most well-known and beloved athletes.