Different motives sustained US flag-dipping refusal at Olympics, historian says

August 05, 2008

The 2008 Beijing Olympics will mark the centennial of the American legend of "This flag dips for no earthly king," although the tradition of the U.S. flag-bearer's refusal to dip the flag before host country's leaders, has evolved for different reasons and has not been carried out consistently, despite public claims, according to a Penn State sports historian.

"When NBC covers the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics Aug. 8, the U.S. team will march into the new stadium and will likely refuse to dip its flag to China's leaders," said Mark Dyreson, associate professor of kinesiology and history. "NBC's commentators will explain that the U.S. is following a tradition began in 1908, but the TV people will be wrong about the history of this particularly important display of American nationalism at the Olympics.

"While the U.S. team did in fact refuse to dip its flag in 1908 at the first-ever parade of nations, the U.S. team dipped the Stars and Stripes in 1912, 1924 and 1932. Indeed, a consistent 'tradition' of not dipping the flag at Olympic opening ceremonies did not develop until 1936 when at both the winter and summer games. The U.S. refused to lower its national banner to Adolph Hitler," he added.

Dyreson has written a series of essays on American nationalism in the Olympics for a new book, "Crafting Patriotism for Global Domination: America at the Olympics" (Routledge Press, London). The essays also were published in a recent issue of the International Journal of the History of Sport.

"The motives for the original refusal, the identity of the flag-bearer and the truth behind the quotation and other issues remain much murkier in the historical record than legend-tellers portray," said Dyreson, a faculty member in the College of Health and Human Development. "The evolution of this flag mythology reveals a great deal about the complex strains of early 20th century American nationalism."

Irish nationalism probably played greater part than American patriotism in the original 1908 protest, according to two essays focused on the American myth of flag-dipping. Also, Gen. Douglas MacArthur's brief stint as the commandant of the 1928 American Olympic team laid the initial foundation for making the flag-dipping refusal an official tradition.

"However, in 1936, the American team's refusal was unquestionably a referendum on Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany," Dyreson explained.

"Most of the athletics and much of the American public agreed that they would engage the Third Reich in athletic contests, but would not dip the flag to Hitler nor embrace the Nazi regime."

"After 1936, the United States would never again dip the Stars and Stripes at an Olympic games," he added. "As the Cold War emerged from the debris of the Second World War, the idea became so strong that even opponent Avery Brundage, who eventually moved through the U.S. Olympic Committee to became president of the International Olympic Committee, could not change the tradition."

The 1952 Helinski games brought in the Soviet Union which followed the American custom and refused to dip their hammer-and-sickle banner to Finnish leaders, joined later by Czechoslovakia in 1956.

Over the years, a diverse group of athletes, sports administrators, politicians and social critics has criticized the tradition and the American press condemned other nations for their tradition of refusal, according to the essays.

By 1976, the American Bicentennial, the American refusal to dip the flag had become such a standard part of Olympic ritual, prompting jokes about it. In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed, but flag-dipping remained a controversy.

In the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics, most of the other nations adopted the American style of flag-dipping. Of the 64 flag-bearers parading past the French president, 60 refused to dip their flags.

Ironically, U.S. cross-country skier Bill Koch nearly ended the American tradition, announcing in advance, "We want to be good world citizens. A dip demonstrates a little humility." But after some controversy, he stuck to the tradition following the athletes' wishes, according to Dyreson.

His other essays cover how Americans have used the Olympics to debate the role of immigration in U.S. society, how the Olympics have shaped racial concepts in American culture, and how the U.S. has used the Olympics in projects to Americanize the rest of the world.

"In 2008, China plans to use the Olympic Games to remake its national identity in the global marketplace. In so doing China treads the path blazed by the United States," Dyreson said. "For more than a century the U.S. has used the Olympic Games to construct national identity, create communal memory and craft patriotic mythology. In the process a host of myths about American superiority in global encounters has emerged through the Olympics. In memorializing and mythologizing their Olympic teams Americans have revealed the contours of the racial, gender, and class dynamics that animate their peculiar nationhood. These essays explore the history of expressions of American national identity in Olympic arenas."

Penn State

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