‘This Flag Dips to No Earthly King’ – Great Moments in US Olympic History
Before the 1908 Summer Olympics could even kick off, controversy embroiled the London games when a subtle act of defiance was committed on a world stage.
During the opening ceremony of the games, representatives of each country entered White City Stadium in procession and flag bearers from all nations lowered their banners when passing the royal box.
The gesture was done as a sign of respect toward King Edward VII and their host nation, the United Kingdom.
As the American procession passed the royal box, flag bearer Ralph Rose refused to drop the American Flag.
Though it was never proven, it is said that Rose acted at the behest of Irish-American Olympian Martin Sheridan, the captain of the US Olympic Team that year.
Famously, Sheridan is said to have quipped that “this flag dips to no Earthly king.”
The act of defiance was believed to be equal parts American patriotism and Irish rebel spirit. Sheridan was a native of County Mayo, Ireland who, like many, resented the rule of the British monarchy. Ireland wouldn’t begin its path to independence until 1916’s Proclamation of Independence.
Sheridan was a member of the Irish American Athletic Club, a Queens-based organization that served as a training center for Irish-Americans and other minorities at the time, since membership to the New York Athletic Club was limited to White Protestants.
The IAAC proved to be a top-notch training facility and the majority of US Olympians in 1908 were members. Between 1900 and 1924, an astounding 54 medals were won by IAAC athletes, including 26 gold medals.
John Baxter Taylor Jr. was an IAAC member who became the first African-American to win a medal for the United States as a member of the 1908 relay team.
Sheridan himself would win gold in both the discus and Greek discus and bronze in the standing long jump in 1908 that year while Rose would take gold in the shot put.
The flag incident is believed by some to have created bias among British judges against American competitors. In the end, the British would lead the medal count with 146. The United States placed a distant second with 47 medals. The 1908 games and the presumption of judging bias would provide the catalyst for the international judging panels that exist today.
Slate recently published an in-depth look at Sheridan and some of the other Irish-American phenoms from the IAAC who represented the United States in early twentieth century Olympic competition. Find the article here.