Column: Time to Reconsider Olympics Custom

Not dipping America's flag to host nation has outlasted its point
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Tonight, the U.S. Olympic team will enter London’s Olympic Stadium, led by Mariel Zagunis, the American flag bearer. What you probably won’t see, however, is Zagunis dip the American flag, unlike every other nation’s flagbearer.

Last week, I mentioned the origins of this unique custom in passing, but it deserves its own story.

At the fourth Olympiad in London 104 years ago, the American team was the only one that refused to dip its flag to the host nation during the opening ceremonies. A tradition was born.

The question is: Is this a tradition we should keep?

Before you answer, it might help to consider how it started.

The 1908 Olympics featured rugby, polo and tug-of-war, plus something brand new: a parade of nations walking around the track during the opening ceremony, complete with a flag-dipping ritual as each country passed the royal reviewing stand of King Edward VII.

The 1908 U.S. Olympic team picked Ralph Rose to carry the flag into London’s new 68,000-seat stadium. Rose was a native Californian who attended the University of Michigan, a huge guy who easily won the Big Ten titles for shot put and discus.

As a proud Irish-American, Rose didn’t possess an overwhelming affection for the English to begin with. In fact, most Americans at that time didn’t. You have to remember, the British had been America’s enemy in the nation’s first two wars, and the first London Olympics were held six years before World War I turned our nations into allies for the first time.

When the American athletes noticed that their British hosts had forgotten to include the U.S. and Swedish flags among the hundreds flying around the stadium, they grumbled. The Swedes got their revenge by skipping the opening ceremonies. When the Finns, then ruled by Russia, were told they would have to march behind a Russian flag, they elected to march with no flag at all. Ralph Rose had another idea.

When he led the American brigade past the King’s royal reviewing stand, Rose steadfastly held the stars and stripes perfectly vertical. The English spectators gasped, and booed. The British officials would soon take it out on the Americans in every event that involved judges – but Rose was satisfied. The legend goes that he explained his actions by saying, “This flag dips for no earthly king.” If he said it, he had a point. America is, after all, the first modern democracy.

What might have been a one-time thing only became a consistent U.S. custom in 1936. At the Berlin Olympics, the American team courageously refused to dip the flag for Adolf Hitler – and no American flagbearer has dipped it since.

But has this tradition run its course? It seems to me it’s one thing to refuse to dip the flag when you represent an up-and-coming nation, eager to show it does not have to bow to its former colonizer, a nation poised to join the world’s other superpowers.

But it’s quite another to continue this tradition when you’re the only superpower left on earth, one that’s turned its back on everything from the United Nations to the Kyoto Accords to the Geneva Conventions. What once seemed a brave gesture is now starting to look arrogant and obnoxious.

It might be time to break with this custom, and dip the flag – just like every other nation does. The question is: When? If the answer was not 1936 in Berlin, it shouldn’t have been in 2008 in Beijing, either – the least humane host nation since Hitler’s.

Since Queen Elizabeth will take King Edward VII’s place in the royal box tonight, I wouldn’t count on the custom changing this year, either.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing on various stations in Michigan and nationally.

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  1. By Wes Miller
    July 28, 2012 at 2:03 am | permalink

    I might be okay breaking this custom if the Olympics were in an Eastern European country that had been under the thumb of the Soviets, or perhaps if the Olympics were in Japan.
    I love the British, but we resolved this in the late 1700s. Our nation’s soul is rooted in the principle that we are not subjects of any monarch.

  2. By Judy T.
    July 29, 2012 at 12:30 pm | permalink

    More than being “custom,” I believe that U.S. Flag etiquette is written into Federal LAW. Not that any government follows its own laws, but maybe it’s time for the U.S. to set an example. Maybe in the next Administration.

    Dip the Flag for anyone? No!!!

  3. By Rod Johnson
    July 29, 2012 at 3:35 pm | permalink

    The US Flag Code is part of Federal law, but there are no penalties and enforcement of it has been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

    Plus, who cares? Americans are too invested in symbols. Let’s try substance for a change.

  4. By Mr. Beepo
    August 1, 2012 at 12:36 pm | permalink

    Dipping the American flag? What next….our President bowing to a Saudi king? Oh wait..he already did that. Never mind.