Why Tonight’s U.S. Flagbearer Will Not Dip the Banner

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.

104 years ago, at the fourth Olympiad in London, 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 this 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 super powers.

But it’s quite another to continue this tradition when you’re the only superpower left on earth.  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.

* * * * *

If you happen to be a Huron High School classmate of mine, our reunion is Saturday, August 18, at the EMU Marriott — a great spot overlooking the golf course and lakes.  You can reserve your spot here: http://www.eventbrite.com/event/3900735204/efbnen  (And please spread the word!)

Like this story?  Please feed the blog, and keep ’em coming!

Radio stuff: I’m back to my original normal of 9:05 Friday mornings on WTKA (semester’s over!), and sticking to my new normal on Michigan Radio of 8:50.  And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon. Closing in on 5,000.

“Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” can be ordered now.


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17 comments Leave a comment  

  • Mark Stratton July 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    I’m of the opinion that not dipping the flag at this point in time is not only arrogant, but silly as all get out.

    I wish I’d known about the reunion before today…i’d have considered coming.

  • Steve Graves July 27, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    I love your work John – I read everything of yours that I can lay my hands on.

    What I don’t need however is your political commentary. Especially when it is as poorly thought out as it is in this essay.

    • johnubacon July 27, 2012 at 9:23 pm

      Mr. Graves (et al),

      Thanks for your kind words, and observation. To clarify the piece, I cut out the sentence in the middle to which I suspect you’re referring.

      Despite some other readers’ guesses — two sent in comments speculating on my politics, but declined to leave their names or functioning email addresses to which I could reply — when it comes to politics, I am stubbornly independent, and have voted often for candidates on both sides (for what it’s worth, which probably ain’t much). I was not trying to make a point about politics in this piece, but comment on a gesture that has — it seems to me — evolved from a statement of national pride to one of arrogance. That, to me, is apolitical, but apparently I did a poor job of conveying that — just one more reason I try to avoid politics in my sports commentary.

      My apology for the confusion.

      And Mr. Graves, I salute the courage of your convictions.


  • Doug yochum July 27, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    Do not dip the flag, too many have died to dip this flag of freedom. It is not arrogance it is national pride…

  • Adam July 28, 2012 at 5:15 am

    Why no mention of American team captain Martin Sheridan? He is the one who supposedly said “This flag dips to no earthly king”, not Ralph Rose.

    • johnubacon July 28, 2012 at 8:47 am

      Adam, you’re right, Sheridan is often credited with the line, but it’s still unclear who said what, which is why I wrote, “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.” Good drop on Sheridan, however. Bonus points.

  • Scott D Fairbank July 28, 2012 at 11:13 am

    Love the blog regardless of whether I agree with your point or not. However, I will say that the USOC or whomever they trot out there to be the flag bearer has zero authority to make the decision on whether to dip the flag. United States Code Title 4 Chapter 1 Para 8 specifically states, “No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing.” So for the USOC to actually believe they have a choice is the only arrogant part of the whole process.

    While i’m sure a lot of Americans believe that dipping the flag is an issue that comes up every two years with the Winter and Summer Olympics, it is actually an event that plays out everyday throughout the world on the high seas. U.S. Navy ships operate daily with ships from almost every Navy in the world and we never dip the flag not because we are better than them (though technically as a Navy we are), but because it is the law. Furthermore, it’s actually a statement that they are not better than us; no one is. I would argue that no country should dip their flag to another country, but that is their choice.

    In closing I would say this; maybe the thought process of not dipping the flag is an indicator of what’s wrong with modern America. Maybe if we did have a little more pride in our country, hold ourselves to a higher standard, work a little harder than everyone else, and embrace our status as the leaders of the world; maybe then we, as a country, could be more effective on the world stage. Instead we worry what Eritrea and others think about us. Why acquiesce to everyone else? Arrogance? Maybe. Pride in our Democratic Republic and it’s foundational beliefs? Definitely.

    • EBh August 17, 2012 at 11:02 am

      Th Olympics were in London so I don’t think the U.S. code matters.

  • fred July 28, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    every single other nation dips their flag to the host nation as a sign of respect.
    this tradition just makes america look arrogant and disrespectful

  • Steve Page July 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    ‘first modern democracy’? Great Britain was a democracy Before the States even existed!

    • Scott D Fairbank July 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      No, actually Britain itself doesn’t consider themselves a full democracy until 1918.

  • Roman Capelli July 30, 2012 at 1:30 am

    I agree with you; we are an arrogant nation, which you can fully see just in the responses to your article. The most important point to convey to the world–and even more so to our children watching our example–is not pride, but good will and respect for each other. This should be shown in gestures large and small around the world.

    When somebody hosts you in any way, you repay the favor by honoring them. Dipping a flag for 1second is the least one person or country can do to acknowledge the effort put forth by that host. It’s childish for us to stand on ceremony, or even a petty law that prevents us from being good international guests. We need to grow up in this country and stop foolishly thinking we’re better than all the rest. Thank you for an article that needed to be written.

  • Robert Harper July 30, 2012 at 7:52 am

    I guess this is why the world seems upside down where pride equals the arrogant. Years of American tradition is “silly” or the big one, every other nation does it, save Russia or China. I would like to be watching this gut where some dummies start play Russian roulette, or maybe just some drones marching with a swastika. This is how we are in the mess we are in apologetic vicariates.
    I hope for all their sake we do not win many medals (this includes US team minorities) these folks are going to have a field day trying to apologize to the world for any of our achievements… Maybe we could give our medals to the losers that did not win any?

  • Robert Harper July 30, 2012 at 7:57 am

    I guess this is why the world seems upside down where pride equals arrogant. Years of American tradition is “silly” or the big one, everybody else does it. I would like to be watching one of these guys when some dummies start play Russian roulette, or maybe just some drones marching with a swastika. This is how we are in the mess we are in apologetic victacrats [sic]. I hope for all their sake we do not win many medals (this includes minorities) these folks are going to have a field day trying to apologize to the world for any of our achievements… Maybe we could give our medals to the losers that did not win any?

  • johnubacon July 30, 2012 at 10:06 am

    I’ve been enjoying this interesting conversation, one I’m happy to host.

    I do feel a need to clarify my own views on all this, however. I trust I don’t need to underscore my pride in being an American (manifest in plenty of columns on this site alone), and our place in the world, past and present. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ve agreed with everything we’ve done — who has? — but my quibbles amount to a ‘lover’s quarrel with my country,’ to paraphrase Robert Frost’s nice line about his relationship to the world.

    I do believe the more we know about our history, the better citizens we can be, and the stronger our country. And, being a history major, teacher and writer, naturally I’ve always been fascinated by the often surprising origins of many customs we take for granted — including Michigan alum Ralph Rose’s unannounced decision not to dip the stars and stripes for King Edward VII, over a century ago.

    It’s not hard to see the argument for repeating the gesture at Berlin in 1936, when the U.S. publicly recognized the evil looming, while the Brits were still trying to appease it. I can also see good arguments for continuing the tradition, especially in Beijing in 2008, for obvious reasons, and London this summer, where the custom began, but also arguments to consider not doing so, in the future. My views on this are not settled.

    Usually, when I write, I hope to give readers the information they need to come to their own conclusions — as is the case here — and even when I state a strong opinion (my opposition to the BCS playoff, for example), you’re certainly free to express your disagreement here.

    (You regular readers know the drill: if you are not profane or insane and you’re willing to sign your name, I’m happy to publish your opinions, whatever they are.)

    As always, thanks for reading, and responding.


  • Chelle August 1, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    Stumbled upon your page, thought it had great info. A quick sort of naive question though, this is the first year I’ve taken notice that the US team doesn’t dip their flag… my q is: has this ever happened with another country? such as when we hosted in SLC a few years ago? thanks for your time!

  • Scott D Fairbank August 4, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Hey all. As I watch these Olympics I can’t help but notice how many countries’ athletes drag there flags across the ground. I have yet to see an American athlete drag the flag; in fact, they’ve been make a concerted effort to avoid.
    Just another difference between us and the rest of the world and how we hold our flags to a different standards.


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