This is a flag day story from the London Olympics – the 1908 London Olympics.
The 1908 Olympics were supposed to have been in Italy, but the 1906 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius near Naples made it impossible for the Italians to host the games. London stepped in at the last minute and hosted the Olympics alongside the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition (which was a big deal during the first decade of the twentieth century).
Organizers decided to open the 1908 Olympics with a Parade of Flags. As a part of the parade, flag bearers from the 22 nations competing in the games were to dip their colors as they passed by King Edward VII in the royal box.
The American flag-bearer was Ralph Rose, a University of Michigan grad who’d won gold in the shot put and silver in the discus at the 1904 games in St. Louis. Back then the Americans and British weren’t as cozy as we are now. (We hadn’t yet been allies in two world wars and rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t happened yet.) And the organizers of the games had neglected to include an American flag among the flags of nations that ringed White City Stadium. (They also forgot Sweden.)
Rose, who was of Irish heritage, was particularly not enamored with the English and refused to lower the flag when he passed in front of the king. Rose was the only flag-bearer with the audacity to do such a thing, and the host country was not happy about his defiant gesture.
John U. Bacon in a piece on Rose at Michigan Today wrote, “The English were suitably offended. They took it out on the Americans in every event that involved judges, all of whom were British.” In response to perceived biases, the 1908 games were the last in which the host country provided all of the judges.
Ralph Rose ended up winning gold in the shot put in London. He also competed in the tug-of-war (which was part of the Olympic program from 1900 to 1920) but failed to medal. Four years later in Sweden (the other country that had been slighted by organizers of the 1908 London Olympics), Rose won silver in the shot put and gold in the two-handed shot put.
Legend has it that, when Rose held the American flag vertical in front of Edward VII, great American discuss thrower Martin Sheridan (also of Irish heritage) said, “This flag dips to no earthly king.” (But there is no solid evidence that Sheridan said such a thing.)
Refusal to lower the flag in front of foreign heads of state became an American Olympic tradition.
According to Bacon, thrower Patrick McDonald refused to dip at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp and the 1924 games in Paris. Swimmer Wally O’Connor famously refused to lower the flag for Adolph Hitler in 1936 in Berlin.
When the Flag Code became public law in 1942 it included a provision that the flag should never be dipped to any person or thing (though it allows an ensign at sea to dip the flag in response to a salute from a foreign ship).