On Oct. 7, 1968, the general body of the International Olympic Committee gathered for its semi-annual meeting, which coincided with the start of the Mexico City Games. Among the various reports, elections, and procedural motions at the meeting, one event stands out: a vote to ban all flags and national anthems from medal ceremonies, and to replace them with the Olympic banner and anthem. This vote made its way to the floor thanks to a single administrator, and it came astonishingly close to passing.
The administrator in question was Prince George William of Hanover, brother-in-law to Queen Elizabeth II and head of the International Olympic Academy from 1966 to 1971. George viewed the Olympic Movement in idealistic terms. To put things less charitably, the prince was somewhat delusional. In his speech to the IOC on Oct. 7, he compared the movement’s impact to that of the Red Cross, saying that while the humanitarian group healed the wounds caused by war and disaster, the Olympics worked in equal measure to prevent them.
But George was clearly worried. Despite the high regard with which he viewed the Olympics, he saw the constant encroachment of politics and nationalism into the games as a poison corrupting its host. The Olympics, which were supposed to be a unifying force, had transformed into simulations of battle between nations. This was no novel observation by Prince George, but rather an echo of what George Orwell had written in his essay “The Sporting Spirit” two decades earlier. Orwell described international sport as “war minus the shooting,” explaining that “as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused” and the finer points of Olympism are thrown out the window.
And so Prince George called for the radical step of removing nationalist symbols entirely. He wanted games free of flags and anthems, other than those of the Olympics itself. Instead of medal ceremonies featuring the national anthem of the winner’s country, he argued, “the Olympic Hymn should be played and the Olympic Flag flown for every Victor, from whatever country he may come.” The Olympics had in their inception been the domain of the individual athlete, which is why competitive, country-specific medal counts have to this day never been officially endorsed by the IOC. George concluded his appeal to the general body by saying the IOC should “make it its objective to prevent the Olympic Games from developing more and more into statistics of national evaluation whereas the athletics merely fulfill the role of collecting points for their country.”
If you’ve watched a second of the Olympics at any point in the last 50 years, you may have surmised the George’s motion never passed. But though his motion may seem radical today, his oration proved effective. It turned out George was not so alone in his thinking. After he said his piece, two of the IOC’s most powerful members, the Marquess of Exeter and Lord Killanin, took the floor in his defense along with a half-dozen others.
Shockingly, George’s motion received overwhelming support, with 34 votes in favor of banning the flags and anthems to only 22 against. But per the IOC rules, a two-thirds majority was needed to implement any change. This meant George’s motion fell short by three votes. Despite the close margin, the defeat was evidently enough to disillusion the prince. Most IOC memberships are cushy lifetime appointments, but George resigned before the next games, never again to be involved in the world of high-level international sport through the remaining four decades of his life.
Nearly five decades on, the Olympics have only further embraced nationalism. But what if George had gotten those three extra votes? Would the games bear no resemblance to the jingoistic spectacle we know today?
This week, we may get a sense of the answer. As a penalty for operating a massive state-sponsored doping program, the Russian tricolor flag and national anthem have both been banned from the Pyeongchang Games. The flag won’t appear in the opening ceremony, on the uniforms of Russian athletes, or at any medal ceremonies. Officially, Russia will win zero medals at the 2018 Winter Games. It’s just what Prince George always wanted.
It is impossible, though, to imagine that the world will see these “athletes from Russia” (the official terminology) as individuals rather than representatives of their native land. Given the media frenzy the ban has already caused, it seems certain that the games will be more politicized that ever, particularly in Russia itself. As the New York Times noted, the country has “long used the Olympics as a show of global force.” Already, Vladimir Putin has suggested the sanctions are the result of American efforts to cause discontent in the lead-up to the Russian election in March. Russian officials have said that the athletes who will be competing in South Korea will be charged with defending the country’s honor.
This is all strong evidence that Prince George’s suggested change wouldn’t really have changed that much at all. The flames of nationalism aren’t really fanned by the symbols seen during the Olympics. They’re stoked by politicians and pundits, and by everyone in Russia and the United States and everyone else around the world who cares less about skiing and speedskating than about watching their team win.
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.
• Everything That Could Go Wrong at the Most Politically Tense Olympics in Decades
• The United States’ Olympic Appeasement in 1936 Helped Fuel the Rise of Nazi Germany