For as much as I love these two weeks in February, I do have one little pet peeve. It’s 8 lines long and, according to Olympic rules, can last no longer than 80 seconds. It’s our national anthem, and why none of our athletes seems to be able to sing it on the medal stand.
I’ve watched an almost embarrassing amount of Games coverage now, including a half dozen medal ceremonies. I have yet to see the winner join in song when his or her anthem is played. Sure, they’ve just won a gold medal for themselves and their country. How can I possibly expect them to sing? But I do. I want them to sing it. Quietly to themselves, or as loudly and off-key as I sing in my car.
Obviously, every athlete goes to the Games knowing the ultimate goal is to stand on that middle platform. So why do they all look so lost, confused, and surprised when the music begins? Poor Alexandre Bilodeau, the first Canadian to ever win the gold on home soil, looked like a (charming) deer in headlights as the Maple Leaf flag went up. You’d think that Canada’s $120 million campaign to “Own The Podium” could have covered a lesson or two on Oh Canada.
A study in 2004 showed that two out of three American adults could not sing the national anthem. I decided to test the numbers on my own Americans. Thing One belted out the full verse a cappella with pride. Thing Two claimed “stage fright.” And Thing Three got stuck in a perpetual loop of “dawn’s early light.” But, our Olympic athletes have shown us we can expect more from them.
We all know The Star Spangled Banner was taken from a poem Francis Scott Key wrote as he waited to see who would emerge victorious when the British Royal Navy took it to our young nation in the War of 1812. And it’s not metaphoric. The rockets and bombs really were bursting in air, but early the next morning 15 stripes and 15 stars rose above Baltimore Harbor and Fort McHenry. The Fort is the only National Historic Shrine in the country and was the first site ever allowed to fly the flag night and day, 365 days a year. And whenever our flag was changed to add a new star, it flew over Fort McHenry first so that the quilted cloth would indeed become The Star Spangled Banner.
The song’s first association with sports was baseball’s opening day in Philadelphia in 1897, but it became a game fixture during the Boston Red Sox 1918 World Series win (Slim would tell you that’s when modern history as we know it began). President Herbert Hoover declared The Star Spangled Banner our national anthem in 1931.
The tune has been played a remarkable 7 times already at these Games, yet only snowboarder Seth Westcott has attempted to mumble his way through the verse on the podium. I expect Bode Miller thought it would be difficult to chew his gum and sing at the same time. However, my oldest proved in the third grade that one can play an entire recorder concert while chewing gum. I think Bode could have managed it.
Some athletes have taken their hats off, and some have even placed a hand over their heart and faced the flag, as is protocol laid out by the official U.S. Flag Code. There is no mention of the common conundrum of what to do when wearing a tiara during the anthem.
But what about the singing? The U.S. Olympic Committee has tried to script and control every aspect of the team’s appearance and behavior (what to wear when, and no tweeting or Facebooking until March 3rd), so it would reason they might also help our 216 athletes prepare for the podium.
To find out, I asked a U.S. Olympian – who happens to sport at least one medal of every color, and indeed did sing as our flag was raised. “The US Olympic Committee requires you to attend orientation and one of the items is ‘singing the national anthem,’” he said. “They gave us the words but told us NOT to sing if you don’t know the words. The USOC thinks it’s disrespectful when the words coming from the athlete’s mouth don’t match the anthem.”
You’d think that if our athletes can train up to 11 hours a day, that they’d be able to memorize 8 lines. As for the singing, if you’re sporting gold, nobody cares if you’re off key. When the hockey team beat the Russians in 1980, they spontaneously sang God Bless America – and with their discordant Boston and Minnesota accents, it couldn’t have been pretty. Yet I’m sure they all sang the anthem two days later when they received their gold medals.
But they weren’t singing it from the podium, as the platforms were only intended for team captains back then. After the flag was raised and the anthem sung, our U.S. captain invited the other 19 Americans to squeeze onto the stand with him. Since then, Olympic podiums have been enlarged to accommodate an entire team of gold medalists.
And that’s why I love the Olympics.