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From The Yomiuri, October 7, 1964

The world was coming to Tokyo in 1964, and Japan wanted to make sure that Tokyo was the friendliest, cleanest and safest city anybody would ever set foot in.

In order to make it safe, one of the actions the Tokyo police took was to lock up all known and suspected pickpockets. Over a three-month campaign prior to the commencement of the Games, the police rounded up 230 pickpockets, resulting in a drop in incidents from 400 in April to 120 in September.

Unfortunately, one can never quite expect the unexpected.

Apparently, there was a rash of shoplifting in the popular stores inside the Olympic Village. The culprits? The Olympic athletes.

As the kid said to Shoeless Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”

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From the report, The Games of the XVIII Olympiad 1964

Here’s how the The Yomiuri started off an article on October 7, 1964. “Although shoplifting is not among the listed events in the Olympics some athletes adept in the old sleight-of-hand game are establishing unofficial records in the village out in Yoyogi, much to the chagrin of shop clerks.”

The article explains that there were a total of 16 shops selling a wide variety of good, including clothing, jewelry and electronics. The most popular items – whether legitimately purchased or quietly absconded – were electronics, specifically transistor radios. Watches, pearl necklaces, ball point pens and silk handkerchiefs apparently also went missing.

Radios were priced¬†at JPY1,000 to 8,000, watches at JPY7,000, and the stolen necklaces going for as high as JPY45,000. Back then, that’s significant money.

According to one shop manager interviewed in the article, “the customers engaged the attention of shop hands by communicating in writing while accomplices, all members of an undisclosed team, slipped the tiny radios into their pockets. The manager said he could not identify the culprits because none of the shop employees saw them in the act.”

“‘We were sorry we were off guard, believing all the athletes to be ladies and gentlemen representing their country,’ he bemoaned.”

village-shopping
From the report, The Games of the XVIII Olympiad 1964
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Nina Ponomareva in Rome.

In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union were finally invited to the Summer Olympic Games. In 1952, with a will to establish the superiority of their system through sport, the Soviets garnered 71 total medals, including 22 golds, to finish second in the medals race.

The first gold went to Nina Ponomareva, who won the women’s discus throw, and glory for her country, setting an Olympic record as well. “Only after I had felt a heavy golden circle in my hand, I realized what happened. I am the first Soviet Olympic Champion, you know, the first record-holder of the 15th Olympiad…Tears were stinging my eyes. How happy I was!

She would go on to win bronze in Melbourne in 1956, and then gold again at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. That’s an impressive track record. Unfortunately, when Ponomareva passed away in August, she was remembered for something else.

In 1956, prior to the Melbourne Games, the Soviets were invited to a bilateral track and field meet between Great Britain and the Soviet Union in London. Ponomareva stepped into a C&A Modes, which The New York Times informed me was a low-priced clothing store on Oxford Street, and was said to have shoplifted. According to the Herald Scotland, Ponomareva was “arrested on charges of shoplifting four feather hats (white, mauve, black, and yellow) plus a red woolen one, costing a total of ¬£1.65.”

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Nina Ponomareva in Helsinki.

When the team manager Konstatin Krupin heard of the arrest this doctor’s wife, teacher and 27-year-old mother, he pulled his team from the competition with Britain. The Bolshoi Ballet, which was headed to London, threatened to cancel their trip if British authorities did not retract the arrest and apologize. The UK Ambassador was summoned to the Kremlin for a good tongue lashing.

Forty four days after the arrest, Ponomareva came out of hiding in the Soviet Embassy. She was found guilty of shoplifting in court and asked to pay three guineas in costs. After that, she went straight to the harbor and got on a ship back home. Later that year, she failed to defend her Olympic championship in Melbourne (finishing third), but rebounded for gold four years later.

It is the legacy of the five hats that lived on beyond her golden glory. According to this obituary in The New York Times, Ponomareva’s name was cited during a debate on Britain’s actions during the Suez Crisis in the House of Commons. Labour member had this to say about the leading party’s foreign policy. “If the (Suez) Canal is vital to us, we take it,” he said. “This is the morality of Nina Ponomareva – ‘I like your hat, I will have it.'”