The Olympics, the Flag, and Jesse Owens

July 30, 2021 Updated: August 2, 2021


In 1984, President Ronald Reagan addressed the American athletes preparing to compete in the Los Angeles Olympic Games, telling them:

“I know I speak for all your fellow citizens—no matter what political persuasion, no matter what race or religion, no matter if poor, middle class, or affluent—when I tell you that you are our team. And each and every one of you, well, we’re with you a hundred percent.”

That year, the Americans won 174 medals, with 83 of those being gold. The spirit of unity based upon our shared identity as Americans caused us to rally around the flag as one people—one nation—united in our shared heritage of liberty and freedom.

As we approached the 2021 Olympics, we witnessed a divisive spirit that reflects the increasing polarization of America. In the Olympic Trials, several athletes disparaged the American flag and the country they sought to represent on the global stage. One athlete who placed third in the hammer throw turned away from the flag during the anthem, and another had declared, “My goal is to win the Olympics so I can burn a U.S. flag on the podium.”

This rejection of the American flag, and indeed of America itself, stands in stark contrast to significant Olympians from the past. Few medalists are more famous than black American Jesse Owens. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin in front of Adolph Hitler, who declared that his Aryan race was superior to all others, Owens won four gold medals.

As he stood on the medalist platform in Nazi Germany to receive one of his gold medals, he said, “My eyes blurred as I heard the Star-Spangled Banner played, first faintly and then loudly, and then saw the American flag slowly raised for my victory.” Nine years later, the American flag was once again raised over Germany after American troops along with their allies successfully rid the world of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Owens’s dedication to the flag was a core part of his life’s beliefs. One time, when leading a youth boxing program in Chicago, he was dismayed to find no flag on the pole outside the building. Quickly locating one, he personally climbed the pole and attached it. An onlooker reported that “He could have been killed. But Jesse Owens wanted that American flag flying.” Owens once explained, “All I have and all that I expect to get is under this flag.” That’s obviously not to say he thought America was perfect—of course it wasn’t—but he saw the flag as a symbol under which all Americans could rally.

The flag represented the victory of freedom over slavery, of equality over racism—it was the ultimate symbol of the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Old Glory, the Stars and Stripes, the Red, White, and Blue—whatever the name, the meaning was the same. That flag vanquished the wicked pro-slavery position of the Confederacy, conquered the Nazi regime, and strove to fulfill the belief that “all men are created equal.”

African Americans who fought during the Civil War against the slave-holding Confederacy were similarly unequivocal in their defense of the flag and their celebration of its true significance. Richard Harvey Cain (an African American Republican elected to the House of Representatives in the 1870s) said that it was only under the flag of the Union that all Americans, both black and white, could “together work out a common destiny until universal liberty … shall be known throughout the world.”

Similarly, African American Republican Rep. John Roy Lynch of Mississippi had been born a slave and suffered under Confederate tyranny until freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Serving in the Halls of Congress, he declared:

“I love the Stars and Stripes. This country is where I intend to live, where I expect to die. To preserve the honor of the national flag and to maintain perpetually the Union of the States, hundreds, and I may say thousands, of brave and true-hearted colored men have fought, bled, and died.”

Frederick Douglass likewise called the American flag “a glorious symbol of civil and religious liberty, leading the world in the race of social science, civilization, and renown.”

Heroes throughout the years and from all walks of life have pointed to the American flag as the banner under which liberty and freedom have advanced the farthest. Even today, all across the world, freedom-loving people wave the Stars and Stripes in the face of tyrannical governments who actively oppress their citizens by unequal laws and unimaginable persecution. In Hong Kong, pro-liberty protesters took to the streets under the American flag and proudly sang the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Similarly, anti-communist citizens in Cuba shout “liberty!” and “freedom!” while carrying the universal symbol for both of those words—the American flag.

This year, as the country competes in another Olympics, let’s look once again to the flag and realize that despite the shortcomings, failures, and tragedies, one thing is certain—America will always wave a banner of liberty and stand as the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Timothy Barton is the president of WallBuilders, a national organization dedicated to highlighting the true facts about the founding of America, our Constitution, and our rich history.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Timothy Barton
Timothy Barton
Timothy Barton is the president of WallBuilders, a national organization dedicated to highlighting the true facts about the founding of America, our Constitution, and our rich history.