Commentary

Stars, stripes and the Olympics

Updated: July 20, 2012, 5:43 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Bruce Jenner was celebrating his world record in the decathlon at the 1976 Summer Games when someone rushed out of the stands at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, fought past two security guards and shoved a little flag on a short stick toward him.

Jenner, caught a little off guard, grabbed it.

[+] EnlargeBruce Jenner
AP Photo/Sal VederBruce Jenner waved the American flag after setting a world record in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

"Remember, this is our bicentennial year. A lot of patriotism. Everybody had a flag in the stadium," Jenner recalled recently. "And so now, I've got the flag in my hand and I'm slowing down. My first thought is 'What do I do with the flag?' I thought, 'This is a little hotdoggy to put the flag out there. It was just, like, too much."

Maybe, but Jenner waved it anyway, thrusting the little flag forward in a celebratory punch that became such an iconic image that John Belushi parodied it on "Saturday Night Live."

"The whole crowd goes crazy," Jenner said. "And I think, 'Well, that kind of worked, but it's maybe too much.' So, I put it up one more time and then I thought, 'That's enough. OK. I don't want to be too hotdoggy here.' So I go to fold it up and put it in my bag, like I'm taking it with me."

And then, someone else came up with another flag.

"Now guys are coming out of the woodwork," Jenner remembered. "That was about it, and I put that flag away, and that's how the whole thing started. Now it's like, 'Bring your PR guy and, as soon as you get across the finish line, throw your flag up.'"

Jenner isn't exaggerating much. George Foreman waved a small American flag, barely larger than his hand, after he won the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics. Then, Jenner waved his, and the trend continued in 1980, when U.S. hockey goalie Jim Craig draped himself in a flag after the "Miracle on Ice" run. By 1984, displaying flags amid "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chants had become tradition after medal-winning performances and have become almost mandatory since. And, rather than the little flags Foreman and Jenner waved, there are now full-scale flags being carried by victorious Olympians.

As British decathlon gold medalist Daley Thompson recently said, "They just keep getting bigger."

Rules of the flag celebration

Where do the flags come from for those victory laps? Sometimes -- although not as often anymore -- from a random fan.

"You want to look for one, and then someone close to the edge [of the stands] will have one," two-time gold medalist Maurice Greene said. "And it's not like it's there for you. You go take it from that person. And then, they never see their flag again. I guess there's a benefit of them being at the Games and you go take their flag: Then then have a story to tell."

In this day and age, I think you can really feel the connection between what's happening in America between our troops and families, and it's almost as if the flag is a body itself. To me, you respect it. It's delicate; you don't disrespect it, just like you don't disrespect any human being. … I'm not saying you get a greater sense of pride, but it's more like an acknowledgement for the people who have fought for us, and not only fought for us but lost their lives.

-- Jackie Joyner-Kersee on carrying the American flag at the Olympics

"You kind of lunge across the line, and you look at who has one, because they come flying out of the stands," said Andrew Valmon, who won gold on the 4x400 relay teams in 1988 and 1992. "There's four of us [on the relay team], and we all wanted to have our own. I know it was a small thing, but that's what I thought about first: 'Who has a flag that I'm able to get?'"

A fan handed Benita Fitzgerald Mosley a flag on a little post after she won the 100-meter hurdles at the 1984 Olympics. She not only ran her victory lap with it, she still has the flag, along with a letter the fan later wrote to her. As USA Track and Field's Chief of Sport Performance, she also helps ensure current athletes will have flags when they cross the finish line.

"We actually keep the flags," Fitzgerald Mosley said. "We have a whole set of them and we bring them to the stadium for the athletes to have, so they don't have to think about, 'Where am I going to get an American flag?' Our staff does that."

The U.S. team also instructs its athletes how to conduct themselves after a victory and how to handle the flag. Among the top rules is to not drag the flag on the ground, no matter how exhausted you might be after a competition.

"After running a race, you can't wrap your body around it even though you're showing love for it," said Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who waved an "itty-bitty" flag after her first gold in 1988 and a much larger one in 1992. "Someone will be watching who doesn't even care about sports, but all they know about is how you treat that flag."

Allyson Felix, Monique Henderson, Sanya Richards, Mary WinebergAlexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty ImagesNowadays, having flags at the ready for Olympic athletes is a common practice.

'Greatest amount of pride'

The Olympics are supposed to be free of politics and nationalism. Of course, they are anything but.

"The Games are supposedly about athletes and not nations, but flags are everywhere at the Games," Pacific University political science professor Jules Boykoff said. "At the opening ceremonies, the athletes march in together by nation, right behind their nation's flag, of course, with the flag bearer being a position of high honor. The Games are supposedly not about politics, but the flags, arguably the most politically-drenched symbols we have, are ubiquitous."

The Olympics aren't the only place you see flags. Those displayed at pregame ceremonies in baseball and football have steadily increased in size, to the point where they are now often the size of the entire field, unfurled by military personnel and accompanied by fighter jets flying overhead. This trend was already in place before 2001 and intensified after 9/11.

Why the need for displaying ever-larger flags?

"Flags can be security blankets of sorts," Boykoff suggested. "And maybe in these perilous times, we're craving bigger security blankets."

Americans aren't alone when it comes to waving their flag, of course. Many other countries display their flags (you will no doubt see a lot of the Union Jack in London), though not all. Middle-distance runner Bernard Lagat won a medal for Kenya in 2004 before becoming an American citizen and making the U.S. Olympic team in 2008 and 2012. He said flag tradition is different in Kenya, where it is difficult for ordinary citizens to even have one.

"It's something guarded," Lagat said. "But over here [in the United States], if I want to express my patriotism, I just get a flag and raise it so high. To me that's the big difference. I like this way more because that represents who you are. I am an American, and so when I lift that flag high, that's the good feeling about it."

Thompson said flag-waving at the Olympics has gotten to be a little much. "It's kind of got to the point where you're never sure why they're waving it, are you?" Thompson said. "Because maybe a lot of people just want nice pictures in the paper, I don't know."

The U.S. athletes interviewed, however, said they definitely knew why they waved the flag. And it wasn't for pictures or press agents.

"In this day and age, I think you can really feel the connection between what's happening in America between our troops and families, and it's almost as if the flag is a body itself," Joyner-Kersee said. "To me, you respect it. It's delicate; you don't disrespect it, just like you don't disrespect any human being. ... I'm not saying you get a greater sense of pride, but it's more like an acknowledgement for the people who have fought for us, and not only fought for us but lost their lives.

"And we as Olympians, on a smaller scale, to carry that flag is done with the greatest amount of pride."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com