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Date: August 6, 2008
Byline: Mark Dyreson

To dip or not to dip the flag at the Olympics?

Tomorrow, the U.S. Olympic team will march around the track at China's new $500 million stadium, and hold the Stars and Stripes aloft before the leaders of the People's Republic. NBC television commentators will assure American viewers that the U.S. intends no disrespect by the gesture and is merely following a long tradition dating to 1908 of never dipping the flag at the Olympics. But TV's chattering hosts will be wrong on multiple levels.

The tradition of unbowed flags dates not to 1908 but to 1936. While the U.S. team at London in 1908 by most accounts did not dip its banner to Great Britain's king at the first opening parade in Olympic history, American flag-bearers did dip the Stars and Stripes in 1912 at Stockholm, in 1924 at Paris, and in 1932 at Lake Placid and Los Angeles.

The refusal, then and now, is not free from politics but has often been intended and interpreted as a signal of disrespect. It has always been an assertion of nationalism — though not always purely American nationalism. Indeed, history reveals the original patriots who refused to dip to the British monarch were animated as much by Irish as American sentiment. Many of the U.S. athletes, including the flag-bearer, were Irish immigrants or descendants and were incensed that their former countrymen were forced to compete under the Union Jack rather than an Irish flag. They intended to insult the British — and the furor that ensued indicates they succeeded.

Between 1908 and 1932 when the U.S. sometimes dipped and sometimes refused, American nationalism came to the fore in 1928 when Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in his brief stint as U.S. Olympic team commander, enforced military protocol to prevent a dip. In 1932, U.S. teams dipped at home to honor their own leaders. Since 1936, when in a clearly political move designed to register discomfort with the host nation, the U.S. team refused to lower the Stars and Stripes to Adolf Hitler in spite of direct requests by the Nazis to do so, no American team has ever dipped the flag. Though American television viewers probably consider the tradition non-controversial and a federal flag code enacted in 1942 dissuades citizens from dipping, the practice of refusing to lower the Stars and Stripes has historically produced heated debates in both domestic and foreign venues. In 1908, the refusal to dip the flag elicited as much condemnation as praise from the American media. Ever since, the custom has been controversial.

The U.S. is not alone in refusing to dip. When the Soviet Union joined the Olympic movement in 1952, its team refused to dip the crimson hammer-and-sickle. Other Soviet satellites followed suit, creating an amusing irony at Squaw Valley in the winter of 1960 when the American press condemned the Warsaw Pact for failing to dip to Vice President Nixon while praising the U.S. team for the very same gesture. By the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics, even as the dissolution of the Soviet Union eroded the Cold War, 60 of the 64 flag-bearers adopted the American habit and refused to dip.

The essential political nature of this American habit inspired, 40 years ago in Mexico City, a black-gloved salute by African-American athletes that eloquently challenged the nation that held its flag aloft in opening ceremonies as a signal of exceptionalism to live up to its unrealized ideals. In 1968, much of the American public booed their gesture, and U.S. officials banished them from the Olympic team for politicizing the games. But, as Art Walker, an African-American triple jumper observed, ''Since the early 1900s the United States has been protesting similarly by failing to dip its flag when it passes the reviewing stand.'' Both gestures, Walker concluded, ''were strictly political.'' This American custom in 1908 and 1968 was political — and will be again in 2008.

Mark Dyreson is an associate professor of kinesiology at Penn State's University Park campus and author of the new book, ''Crafting Patriotism for Global Domination: America at the Olympics'' (Routledge Press).

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