America’s refusal to dip the flag has complicated Olympic history

LONDON -- The last few days before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics swirled past in a flurry for Mark Grimmette.

The luger from Michigan had been chosen to carry the American flag at the opening ceremony and wondered about protocol. Instructions came at him from all sides.

Line up here. Walk there. Maintain an even pace.

And one more thing.

“I had a lot of people tell me,” he recalls, “you’re not supposed to dip the flag.”

Most Olympic teams briefly lower their colors as a sign of respect when they march past the box where the host nation’s leaders are seated. The U.S. does not.

When the Americans pick a flag bearer for the 2012 London Olympics this week, he or she almost certainly will be advised to uphold a tradition that dates back more than a century.

According to popular legend, shotputter Ralph Rose set the tone at the 1908 Summer Games — also held in London — when he supposedly proclaimed: “This flag dips for no earthly king.”

To the rest of the world, it seemed like blatant nationalism. The truth of the matter, and the history of America’s refusal to dip, is far more complicated than that.

As a professor at Penn State, Mark Dyreson has devoted a good portion of his academic career to studying the Olympics. He has written two historical papers on flag etiquette at the parade of nations.

“It sort of becomes a folk tale,” he said, “a nice romantic mythology.”

Piecing together the fragments of this yarn a century later has not been easy. No one knows for sure why Rose broke from the accepted practice of dipping in 1908, but Dyreson has his suspicions.

During that era, Irish athletes bridled at having to compete under Britain’s flag. Dyreson believes Rose, an Irish American, might have been pressured by other Irish Americans on the U.S. team to make a show of protest before King Edward VII.

If so, this gesture was largely misunderstood.

“Around the world, there was a lot of criticism,” Dyreson said. “It was considered a sign of ugly Americanism.”

The professor can find no evidence that Rose, well-known teammate Martin Sheridan or any other U.S. athlete uttered the “no earthly king” comment. He also points out that it took awhile for the non-dipping tradition to take hold.

Americans lowered their flag for King Gustav V at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. They showed no such respect at Antwerp in 1920 — but those Games were held shortly after World War I, at a time when nationalism ran high and many of the athletes were still enlisted in the military.

The saga grew even more curious after that.

Patrick McDonald — the same flag bearer who held the colors high in Antwerp — surprised everyone by dipping at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Four years later, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, looking to position himself for a political career, oversaw the American team and demanded that it follow military regulations.

That meant no dip.

Once again, other countries took offense. According to Dyreson, some in the American media were similarly critical.

“MacArthur was imposing the military standard,” the professor said. “There were people who did not like him at all.”

The tradition continued to flip-flop for another decade until history intervened.

In 1936, both the Summer and Winter Olympics were held in Germany. With Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in control, there was talk of a U.S. boycott.

The Americans eventually decided to participate, but officials announced their team would not lower the flag to Hitler at either Games. According to media reports, neither did Bulgaria, Iceland or India.

“In Berlin, the tradition gets codified for the USOC — it’s not just the athletes doing it, now there’s an official policy,” Dyreson said. “After 1936, we never dip again.”

Kayaker Cliff Meidl can remember being told not to dip before the opening ceremony at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Women’s basketball star Dawn Staley heard the same instruction when she served as flag bearer at the 2004 Athens Games.

“You’ve got to keep the flag straight up no matter what,” she said. “Straight, straight, straight.”

Neither athlete recalls being told why.

The issue has been raised a number of times since the 1936 Berlin Games. The late Avery Brundage, who ruled over the U.S. Olympic movement and the International Olympic Committee for decades, had previously tried to settle the matter by suggesting Americans carry a special Olympic banner that might be dipped. When that failed, he continued to search for — but never found — a solution.

In 1968, hammer thrower Harold Connolly mentioned that, if elected flag bearer, he might break U.S. tradition at the Mexico Olympics. Dyreson wrote that the USOC took steps to make sure he was not chosen.

Bill Koch, the free-spirited cross-country skier, made a similar threat before the 1992 Albertville Games.

“We’re the strongest nation on Earth,” Koch said. “We want to be good world citizens. I think we could do better. A dip demonstrates a little humility.”

But the Americans had not even dipped for President Reagan at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. And, by that time, the Soviet Union and other nations also had stopped dipping.

So when the 1992 opening ceremony came around, Koch held the flag steady before French President Francois Mitterrand.

“The press from other nations — they still prod the Americans about this every four years,” Dyreson said. “People around the world still see it as arrogance.”

With so many years gone by, a one-time protest has become the standard for reasons that no one seems to recall.

Whomever the current team chooses as flag bearer in London will be sure not to dip, Dyreson said, and the tradition will continue.

“The U.S. basically does what it wants when it comes to the Olympics,” he said. “I don’t see anything changing.”