The Little-Known History of How the Modern Olympics Got Their Start

As London gets set to host the XXXth Olympiad, acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford connects the modern Games to their unlikely origin—in rural England

As the Games return to London, it's worth remembering that they may not exist at all were it not for the perseverance of the Brits. (John Ritter)
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London’s first Olympics also left us with the huffy reverberations of a celebrated incident, which is still, a whole century later, proudly cited by Americans. Unfortunately, it really only kinda, sorta happened. All right, though, first the glorious legend:

During the opening ceremony, as the American contingent passed the royal box, the U.S. flag bearer, a shot-putter named Ralph Rose, standing up for his Irish forebears, acting with noble premeditation, did not dip the Stars and Stripes before King Edward as every other nation’s flagman did. Afterward, a teammate of Rose’s named Martin Sheridan sneered: “This flag dips to no earthly king.” And thereafter, at all subsequent Olympics, while all other countries continue to dutifully dip their national standard as they pass the official box, our flag alone forever waves as high at the Olympics as the one Francis Scott Key saw by the dawn’s early light.

Well, as sure as George Washington cut down the cherry tree, it’s a good all-American story. However, comprehensive research by Bill Mallon and Ian Buchanan, published in the Journal of Olympic History in 1999, casts doubt on most of the great patriotic flag tale. Yes, Ralph Rose carried the flag, and while there were not one, but two occasions when flag bearers were supposed to “salute,” he surely only dipped it once—although when asked about it, he denied that anyone had suggested he forgo protocol to make a political point. For all we know, Rose may have just forgotten to drop the flag. Martin Sheridan’s famously jingoistic remark about how the red-white-and-blue “dips to no earthly king” did not appear in print until almost 50 years later—long after Sheridan was dead.

Moreover, at the time, the epi­sode didn’t even rise to the level of a tempest in a teapot. Mallon and Buchanan could not find a single reference in the British press to Rose’s allegedly insulting action, and the New York Herald even went out of its way to write that the crowd’s cheers for the U.S. contingent were “particularly enthusiastic.” Rose’s action set no precedent either. In subsequent Olympics, the flag was not lowered on some occasions—most assuredly not before Adolf Hitler in 1936—but it was politely dropped down on others. Moreover, at various times, other nations have also chosen not to dip.

In 1942, rendering Olympic flag-dipping moot, Congress passed a law that declared “the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing.” That seems terribly overwrought, but it was in the midst of World War II. Ironically, then, Mallon and Buchanan concluded that the last U.S. Olympian known to have dipped the flag was Billy Fiske, a two-time bobsled gold medalist, who lowered the standard at Lake Placid, New York, in 1932 before the American official who opened the Winter Games, the governor of New York, one Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Coincidentally, Fiske himself is surely more identified with England than any other American Olympian in history. He was born in Brooklyn, but his forebears were English, from Suffolk. He had won his first gold, driving the bobsled, in 1928 at St. Moritz when he was only 16, and then he matriculated at Cambridge, where he read economics and history before coming back to the States to repeat his victory in the ’32 Games, when he also proudly dipped the flag before FDR.

But Billy Fiske would return again to England.

As the Olympic Movement wants to think that it succors peace and goodwill, so too is it reluctant to acknowledge that even in the Games, bad people up to no good do still muck about. If you’re for the Olympics, nothing much else matters. When the Japanese government reluctantly had to give up the 1940 Games because it was otherwise occupied with killing and raping Chinese, the International Olympic Committee simply decreed that the Winter Games would be returned to Germany, because they’d been so swell there in ’36. This decision was made in June of 1939, only three months before the Nazis invaded Poland.

After the unfortunate hostilities were concluded, the IOC still embraced Nazi and Fascist members. “These are old friends whom we receive today,” the president, a Swede named Sigfrid Edstrom, noted later. And because the show must go on as if nothing was amiss, poor London was the ideal symbolic choice. It was September 1946 when the decision was hurriedly made—again, giving the hosts barely a year and a half to prepare. Not everyone was on board, either. “A people preparing for a winter battle for survival,” the Evening Standard editorialized, “may be forgiven for thinking that a full year of expensive preparation for the reception of an army of foreign athletes verges on the border of excessive.”

London in the peace of 1946 was barely better off than during the war. Never mind that much of it still lay, bombed, in rubble. Citizens were allotted only 2,600 calories per day. All sorts of foods were still rationed; indeed, bread rationing wouldn’t end till just days before the Olympics began. I remember Sir Roger Bannister, the first four-minute miler, telling me that, with no disrespect to Bob Mathias—the 17-year-old American who won the decathlon in London—no English athlete could have possibly enjoyed sufficient nutrition to allow him to achieve such a feat at such a young age.


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