Women'S fascination with hats knows few bounds, but, when it triggered a diplomatic incident, it went down in history. Nina Ponomareva was a doctor's wife, a teacher and 27-year-old mother of a two-year-old son. She spoke no English when apprehended at C&A in Oxford Street in 1956.

Store detectives said she hadn't paid for five hats. But she failed to appear in court and, for six weeks, "Nina and the five hats" were headline news until she was found guilty.

There were high-level exchanges between White-hall and Moscow. A two-day athletics international at the White City, between Britain and the Soviet Union, was scrapped. The Bolshoi Ballet threatened to axe a London tour, and a reciprocal Saddler's Wells visit was also at risk.

For Ponomareva was Olympic discus champion, an Amazon and an iconic figure in her homeland.

It was the year in which Elvis made his first chart entry, with Heartbreak Hotel; Khrushchev raised hopes of a new dawn by attacking veneration of Stalin, then dashed them by invading Hungary; and actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier.

Nina was born 80 years today, and was just 23 when she won gold in Helsinki. She was known as Miss Muscles, but soon took a husband, and held the world record when she arrived in London with the 100-strong Soviet team.

But when arrested on charges of shoplifting four feather hats (white, mauve, black, and yellow) plus a red woollen one, costing a total of £1.65, team manager Krupin said it was "a dirty provocation". Czarist supporters were accused of a dastardly plot.

When Nina failed to appear, a warrant was issued. Her embassy denied any knowledge and Special Branch staked out docks and airports.

Harold Abrahams, the 1924 Olympic 100 metres champion and treasurer of British athletics, expressed regret at cancellation of the meeting, and said all ticket money would be refunded. But Galina Ulanova, the Bolshoi's prima ballerina, wrote to the newspaper, Izvestia, and said she would not tour if she couldn't do so "without fear of persecution". UK fans had queued for three days in London paying £40,000 for tickets to her British debut.

The UK ambassador in Moscow was infuriated to be summoned to the Kremlin "to be harangued over this piddling business." Meanwhile, as the Soviets left for home, one was photographed trying to hide the C&A logo on a bag.

After 44 days, Ponomareva emerged from the embassy where she'd been all along. She was found guilty and ordered to pay three guineas (£3.15) costs, but was given an absolute discharge, which meant no criminal conviction.

She was driven straight to the steamship, Molotov, and sailed home but six weeks of trying to maintain fitness in the embassy took its toll. She was third in defence of her Olympic title in Melbourne where she was shadowed by KGB minders. But, in 1960, she regained the title, oldest Olympic champion in Rome.

Ponomareva always insisted she had paid for the hats. Was she a victim? The prosecution said she'd no receipt but, in Russia, customers pay at a central till and the sales assistant retains the receipt as proof of purchase. Ponomareva would not have thought to ask for one in London.

Curiously, when she was apprehended in the store, her purse contained exactly the correct change: the equivalent of the 108 rouble allowance converted to English currency, minus the cost of the five gaudy hats and other purchases.