The modern Olympics started in 1896, but it took 28 more years before the winners would hear their national anthem during the medal ceremony.
The Vancouver Games will conduct 86 medal ceremonies, during which any of the 82 countries present could be serenaded with their national anthem. But not all are created equal – including ours.
You probably knew the melody for our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” came from a popular British drinking song, and that Francis Scott Key added the words during the War of 1812. But you might not have known the song didn’t become our national anthem until more than a century later, in 1931. And we didn’t start playing the song before ball games until World War II.
“The Star Spangled Banner” may be two centuries old, but its status as our national anthem is relatively new – and, I think, not beyond reconsideration.
True, the song can be strong and moving. But who can forget Carl Lewis’s version, which sounded like a feral cat in serious pain, or actress Roseanne Barr’s rendition – which put the “f” back in “professionalism”?
In their defense, “The Star Spangled Banner” is notoriously difficult to sing – or even remember. Raise your hand if you really know what a “rampart” is? That’s what I thought. Thank you.
That’s just another reason why I think we should consider adopting a different national anthem, like “America, the Beautiful.” In 1895, a Wellesley College professor, fed up with the greed of the Robber Barons – sound familiar? – took a train to Colorado, and was reminded along the way what a great country this truly is. When her poem was coupled with Samuel Ward’s melody, a classic was born.
For my money, Ray Charles’ version is the best. When I hear him sing, “America, America, God done shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good, with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea,” there aren’t too many things I wouldn’t be willing to do for my country.
Just a few years after “America, the Beautiful” came out, Irving Berlin composed “God Bless America” to inspire victory in World War I. Twenty years later, he revised it to respond to the Nazis’ rise to power.
From the opening, “God Bless America, Land that I love,” to the close, “My home sweet home,” Berlin doesn’t give you much to quibble about.
If Ray Charles stamped “America, the Beautiful,” as his own, surely “God Bless America” belongs to Kate Smith. But in the aftermath of Vietnam, the patriotic standard’s popularity was slipping – until the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team started playing it before crucial contests. They’ve won some 80% of those games – and all three when Kate Smith arrived to sing it in person.
Her first appearance, on May 19, 1974, preceded the Flyers’ 1-0 victory over Boston, for the Flyers’ first Stanley Cup. Many credited Smith for lifting the crowd and the team to new heights. Even the famously tough Philly fans could not boo Kate Smith.
When the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team pulled off the greatest upset in sports history, the players spontaneously broke into a chorus – not of “The Star Spangled Banner,” but “God Bless America.”
They couldn’t sing it quite like Kate Smith, but they understood what they were singing, they understood why, and they meant every word. I think they were on to something.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.