The Stories Behind 25 Flags You'll See in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies

 LOIC VENANCE, AFP/Getty Images
LOIC VENANCE, AFP/Getty Images

When the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics take place on Friday, February 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, athletes and representatives from dozens of countries from all over the world will flaunt their nation's flags as the competition gets under way. But while we're admiring the nearly parade of brightly colored flags, what we won't see is the history and meaning behind each one. Every country's flag is more than just a design—it's a part of its heritage and can tell us something about its history. So get better acquainted with the nations at this year's games by reading the stories behind 25 flags you'll see in the Olympic opening ceremonies.

1. ECUADOR

Flag of Ecuador
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The Ecuadorian flag is made up of three horizontal bands of color: a double-width band of yellow, followed by one blue and then red. The colors themselves all hold significance with yellow representing the abundance of crops and the fertility of the country's land; the blue symbolizes the sea and sky; and the red represents the blood that was spilled for freedom and independence.

2. ERITREA

Flag of Eritrea
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The flag of Eritrea features the colors red, green, and blue to represent (again) the blood spilled for freedom, the country's agriculture, and the bounties of the Red Sea, respectively. The triangle on the flag was inspired by the shape of the country itself, while the 30 leaves of the wreath in the center stand for the number of years the country spent fighting a civil war for independence.

3. KOSOVO

Flag of Kosovo
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In the lead-up to the adoption of the Kosovo flag in 2008, the provisional government held a contest to determine what the new design would look like. The current flag features a yellow silhouette of Kosovo itself on a blue background, with six white stars standing for the country's major ethnic groups: Albanians, Serbians, Turks, Gorani, RAE (Romani, Ashkali, and Kosovo Egyptians), and Bosniaks.

4. MALAYSIA

Flag of Malaysia
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The Malaysian flag features 14 horizontal lines alternating red and white to symbolize the 13 states and federal government of the country. The same is true for the 14 points on the flag's star, which again represent the states and government, but are here unified to form one shape. The star is then partly surrounded by a crescent representing the nation's official religion, Islam. Known as the Jalur Gemilang, the flag was designed by Mohamed Hamzah, a public works department architect in the late 1940s. The design was tweaked and finalized before it was flown for the first time on May 19, 1950, and it has evolved as Malaysia's states have changed over the years.

5. NIGERIA

Flag of Nigeria
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The Nigerian flag is striking in its simplicity. The bold vertical bands tell the story of the country's agricultural wealth (green) and its peace and unity (white). The white also represents the Niger River that runs throughout. The flag was designed in 1959 by a 23-year-old named Pa Michael Taiwo Akinkunmi, who came across the opportunity after reading about it in the newspaper while in college. For his work, he won 100 pounds—or roughly $280.

6. SINGAPORE

Flag of Singapore
Brian Jeffery Beggerly , Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The red and white flag of Singapore makes a bold statement about its ideals. The crescent moon on the flag is meant to represent a young nation growing in power, while the five points on the star prioritize the country's dedication to democracy, peace, progress, justice, and equality. This flag replaced Britain's Union Jack in 1959, and the striking red background is meant to represent brotherhood and unity.

7. ARGENTINA

Flag of Argentina
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The flag of Argentina is famous for its image of the "Sun of May" sitting on band of white, with two bands of blue above and below it. That's the official flag used for military and official government, and for years civilians could only use an alternate version of the flag without the sun. In 1985, however, that was changed, and now anyone, as long as the proper respect is paid, can flaunt the official Argentinian flag.

8. IRELAND

Flag of Ireland
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The three colors on the Irish flag—green, white, and orange—tell the story of the hopes for the unification of its people. Green stands for the native Irish, who were Catholics; the orange is for the later Protestant settlers from Britain who supported King William III (also known as William of Orange); and the white portion in the middle is there to show the hopes for everlasting peace between the two groups. And if those unique color shades catch your interest, the Pantone code for the green is 347 U and the orange is 151 U.

9. MONACO

Flag of Monaco
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The national flag of Monaco is a simple one—two equal, horizontal bands of red and white. This is the flag that citizens use and it's the one that represents the country internationally, such as at the United Nations and Olympics. There is, however, another flag that the country uses on its government buildings and for the prince. This one shows off Monaco's coat of arms on a white background.

10. POLAND

Flag of Poland
włodi, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

There are two flags associated with Poland—one is the simple red and white design which is the inverse of the flag of Monaco. If history is any guide, this is the flag you'll see the Olympic athletes use during the opening ceremony. And then there's the variant with the country's national emblem—an eagle—displayed on the white portion of the flag. This version is used on Polish government buildings around the globe and on sea vessels.

11. TONGA

Flag of Tonga
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The color red and the image of the cross on the flag of Tonga represent the blood of Christ for a nation that is made up primarily of Christians. And don't expect the look to change anytime soon—it's written into the country's constitution that the design of the flag can never be altered [PDF].

12. REPUBLIC OF KOREA

Flag of South Korea
Valentin Janiaut, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The flag of South Korea is a busy one. The central symbol is the red (Pantone 186 C) and blue (Pantone 294 C) image of Ying-Yang, representing opposites (positive and negative), with four sets of three bars surrounding it. The bars—or Kwae—are meant to elicit a sense balance or harmony. The white background emphasizes the Korean people as unified and peaceful. Though the flag was originally conceived in the late 19th century, it took until 1997 to establish standardized [PDF].

13. ESTONIA

Flag of Estonia
Heikki Siltala, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Estonian flag was originally adopted by the country's provisional government in 1917 and was used until the Soviet occupation of 1940. The design was immediately banned until the nation regained its freedom and was officially adopted again in 1989. The flag's blue, black, white colors all represent something of importance to the Estonian way of life—blue for the seas, lakes, and sky; black for the fertile soil; and white for its snowy landscape.

14. SWITZERLAND

Flag of Switzerland
Fredrik Rubensson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Other than the Vatican, Switzerland is the only sovereign state to have a square flag, rather than the standard rectangle (though some rectangle variants still exist in certain situations). The Red Cross uses the inverse of the Swiss flag, in honor of Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman whose book A Memory of Solferino helped inspire the idea for the organization.

15. KYRGYZSTAN

Flag of Kyrgyzstan
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The red field that makes up the backbone of the Kyrgyzstan flag is meant to conjure images of "bravery and valor" based on Manas, the country's national hero. Some, however, are still skeptical of such a bold use of red, fearing that it still retains the DNA of the Soviet regime that the country escaped in the early '90s.

16. GEORGIA

Flag of Georgia
young shanahan, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The modern flag of Georgia is relatively new—it was officially adopted by the nation in 2004. It's similar to flags used intermittently from the 8th through 15th centuries, and the design is fairly simple: four small corner crosses sectioned off by a much larger one in the middle, known as St. George's cross. The overall design is a take on the "Jerusalem cross," which some believe symbolizes the five wounds of Christ.

17. BELARUS

Flag of Belarus
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Like many flags, Belarus's has colors representing past struggles (red, likely for blood) and hope (green, which also has links to the country's forests). The one thing that makes the Belarus flag stand out is the red and white ornamentation at its hoist. This was inspired by designs typically found in Belarusian society.

18. UKRAINE

Flag of Ukraine
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Simple but striking: the Ukrainian flag's colors are meant to symbolize the country's fields of wheat (yellow) and blue skies (blue). After the flag's design was chosen, people would fly the flag with either the blue or yellow at the top, not knowing which way was up or down. It would eventually take an act of parliament in 1918 to cement that the blue goes on top and the yellow at the bottom.

19. GREAT BRITAIN

Picture of the Union Jack
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The flag of Great Britain is a composite of three centuries-old flags from the various lands that now make up the United Kingdom: St. George's Cross of England, St. Patrick's Cross of Ireland, and St. Andrew's Cross of Scotland. The process was a long one, though. The first two flags—England and Scotland—were first combined in 1606, leaving almost 200 more years before the union was complete when Great Britain and Ireland united in 1801. And if you're wondering why Wales isn't represented on the flag—it's because Wales and England unified in 1536, predating the idea of a "Union" flag and, well, kind of leaving them out.

20. GHANA

Flag of Ghana
Elliott Brown, Flickr // CC BY SA 2.0

Like many countries, the Ghana flag features red to remember bloodshed, gold to appreciate its natural resources, and green for vegetation. But the stark, black star in the middle is what will catch anyone's eye. This star represents Africa's united fight against colonialism and was put in by the flag's designer Theodosia Salome Okoh.

21. BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

Flag of Bosnia
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When the country itself couldn't settle on a final flag design, Carlos Westendorp, an outsider and the International High Representative for Bosnia, made the choice himself. The three points of the triangle are meant to stand in for the three principal ethnic groups in the country: Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. The blue background calls to mind the flag of the European Union, while the stars are cut in half at the top and bottom for a reason: when the flag is folded, these would form a new, whole star, suggesting unity.

22. PUERTO RICO

Flag of Puerto Rico
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Though it has less stars and stripes than the similar U.S. flag, Puerto Rico's is no less full of symbolism. The five-pointed star stands for the commonwealth itself, while the three points of the triangle it's housed in are for the Judicial, Legislative, and Executive branches of government. The red stripes—as is the trend—are for the blood spilled throughout its history, while the white stripes stand for the freedoms afforded to individuals. It was adopted as the national flag when Puerto Rico officially became a commonwealth in 1952.

23. GREECE

Flag of Greece
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There are two main thoughts regarding the nine stripes on the Greek flag. For some, each stripe is for a syllable in the phrase Eleftheria H Thanatos or "Freedom or death." Another story, however, sees them as the nine muses found in Greek mythology, with the blue and white representing the sea and clouds. The historical record regarding the flag's origin is spotty, and even the exact shade of blue has changed from light to navy over the decades.

24. JAPAN

Flag of Japan
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There are two names given to Japan's flag: Nisshōki, meaning "sun-mark flag" and Hinomaru or "sun disc." And while the flag has existed in some form since the early 8th century, it wasn't officially adopted by the Japanese government until 1999. One variation of the Japanese flag is the "Rising Sun" flag that was prominent in the late 19th century through World War II. It's still in use today by the Japanese Maritime Defense Force (as well as in certain advertisements) and has become controversial because of its association with the nation's imperialistic past.

25. NEUTRAL ATHLETE FLAG

Olympic flag
Scazon, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Of course not every nation has their flag flown during the Olympics opening ceremonies. Athletes whose countries do not officially participate in the games—including countries that boycott or are disqualified—compete under the Olympics flag. For the 2018 Winter Olympics, this is the flag that the "Olympic Athletes from Russia" will come out with for the opening. It's a standard white flag with the interlocking Olympic rings emblazoned on it. The logo debuted in 1914 and the rings were meant to represent the five "continents" that participated in the games: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.

Why the Filet-O-Fish Sandwich Has Been on the McDonald's Menu for Nearly 60 Years

McDonald's has introduced and quietly killed many dishes over the years (remember McDonald's pizza?), but there's a core group of items that have held their spot on the menu for decades. Listed alongside the Big Mac and McNuggets is the Filet-O-Fish—a McDonald's staple you may have forgotten about if you're not the type of person who orders seafood from fast food restaurants. But the classic sandwich, consisting of a fried fish filet, tartar sauce, and American cheese on a bun, didn't get on the menu by mistake—and thanks to its popularity around Lent, it's likely to stick around.

According to Taste of Home, the inception of the Filet-O-Fish can be traced back to a McDonald's franchise that opened near Cincinnati, Ohio in 1959. Back then the restaurant offered beef burgers as its only main dish, and for most of the year, diners couldn't get enough of them. Things changed during Lent: Many Catholics abstain from eating meat and poultry on Fridays during the holy season as a form of fasting, and in the early 1960s, Cincinnati was more than 85 percent Catholic. Fridays are supposed to be one of the busiest days of the week for restaurants, but sales at the Ohio McDonald's took a nosedive every Friday leading up to Easter.

Franchise owner Lou Groen went to McDonald's founder Ray Kroc with the plan of adding a meat alternative to the menu to lure back Catholic customers. He proposed a fried halibut sandwich with tartar sauce (though meat is off-limits for Catholics on Fridays during Lent, seafood doesn't count as meat). Kroc didn't love the idea, citing his fears of stores smelling like fish, and suggested a "Hula Burger" made from a pineapple slice with cheese instead. To decide which item would earn a permanent place on the menu, they put the two sandwiches head to head at Groen's McDonald's one Friday during Lent.

The restaurant sold 350 Filet-O-Fish sandwiches that day—clearly beating the Hula Burger (though exactly how many pineapple burgers sold, Kroc wouldn't say). The basic recipe has received a few tweaks, switching from halibut to the cheaper cod and from cod to the more sustainable Alaskan pollock, but the Filet-O-Fish has remained part of the McDonald's lineup in some form ever since. Today 300 million of the sandwiches are sold annually, and about a quarter of those sales are made during Lent.

Other seafood products McDonald's has introduced haven't had the same staying power as the Filet-O-Fish. In 2013, the chain rolled out Fish McBites, a chickenless take on McNuggets, only to pull them from menus that same year.

[h/t Taste of Home]

The Disturbing Reason Schools Tattooed Their Students in the 1950s

Kurt Hutton, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Kurt Hutton, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Paul Bailey was born at Beaver County Hospital in Milford, Utah on May 9, 1955, it took less than two hours for the staff to give him a tattoo. Located on his torso under his left arm, the tiny marking was rendered in indelible ink with a needle gun and indicated Bailey’s blood type: O-Positive.

“It is believed to be the youngest baby ever to have his blood type tattooed on his chest,” reported the Beaver County News, cooly referring to the infant as an “it.” A hospital employee was quick to note parental consent had been obtained first.

The permanent tattooing of a child who was only hours old was not met with any hysteria. Just the opposite: In parts of Utah and Indiana, local health officials had long been hard at work instituting a program that would facilitate potentially life-saving blood transfusions in the event of a nuclear attack. By branding children and adults alike with their blood type, donors could be immediately identified and used as “walking blood banks” for the critically injured.

Taken out of context, it seems unimaginable. But in the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its apex and atomic warfare appeared not only possible but likely, children willingly lined up at schools to perform their civic duty. They raised their arm, gritted their teeth, and held still while the tattoo needle began piercing their flesh.

 

The practice of subjecting children to tattoos for blood-typing has appropriately morbid roots. Testifying at the Nuremberg Tribunal on War Crimes in the 1940s, American Medical Association physician Andrew Ivy observed that members of the Nazi Waffen-SS carried body markings indicating their blood type [PDF]. When he returned to his hometown of Chicago, Ivy carried with him a solution for quickly identifying blood donors—a growing concern due to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The conflict was depleting blood banks of inventory, and it was clear that reserves would be necessary.

School children sit next to one another circa the 1950s
Reg Speller, Fox Photos/Getty Images

If the Soviet Union targeted areas of the United States for destruction, it would be vital to have a protocol for blood transfusions to treat radiation poisoning. Matches would need to be found quickly. (Transfusions depend on matching blood to avoid the adverse reactions that come from mixing different types. When a person receives blood different from their own, the body will create antibodies to destroy the red blood cells.)

In 1950, the Department of Defense placed the American Red Cross in charge of blood donor banks for the armed forces. In 1952, the Red Cross was the coordinating agency [PDF] for obtaining blood from civilians for the National Blood Program, which was meant to replenish donor supply during wartime. Those were both measures for soldiers. Meanwhile, local medical societies were left to determine how best to prepare their civilian communities for a nuclear event and its aftermath.

As part of the Chicago Medical Civil Defense Committee, Ivy promoted the use of the tattoos, declaring them as painless as a vaccination. Residents would get blood-typed by having their finger pricked and a tiny droplet smeared on a card. From there, they would be tattooed with the ABO blood group and Rhesus factor (or Rh factor), which denotes whether or not a person has a certain type of blood protein present.

The Chicago Medical Society and the Board of Health endorsed the program and citizens voiced a measure of support for it. One letter to the editor of The Plainfield Courier-News in New Jersey speculated it might even be a good idea to tattoo Social Security numbers on people's bodies to make identification easier.

Despite such marked enthusiasm, the project never entered into a pilot testing stage in Chicago.

Officials with the Lake County Medical Society in nearby Lake County, Indiana were more receptive to the idea. In the spring of 1951, 5000 residents were blood-typed using the card method. But, officials cautioned, the cards could be lost in the chaos of war or even the relative quiet of everyday life. Tattoos and dog tags were encouraged instead. When 1000 people lined up for blood-typing at a county fair, two-thirds agreed to be tattooed as part of what the county had dubbed "Operation Tat-Type." By December 1951, 15,000 Lake County residents had been blood-typed. Roughly 60 percent opted for a permanent marking.

The program was so well-received that the Lake County Medical Society quickly moved toward making children into mobile blood bags. In January 1952, five elementary schools in Hobart, Indiana enrolled in the pilot testing stage. Children were sent home with permission slips explaining the effort. If parents consented, students would line up on appointed tattoo days to get their blood typed with a finger prick. From there, they’d file into a room—often the school library—set up with makeshift curtains behind which they could hear a curious buzzing noise.

When a child stepped inside, they were greeted by a school administrator armed with indelible ink and wielding a Burgess Vibrotool, a medical tattoo gun featuring 30 to 50 needles. The child would raise their left arm to expose their torso (since arms and legs might be blown off in an attack) and were told the process would only take seconds.

A child raises his hand in class circa the 1950s
Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images

Some children were stoic. Some cried before, during, or after. One 11-year-old recounting her experience with the program said a classmate emerged from the session and promptly fainted. All were left with a tattoo less than an inch in diameter on their left side, intentionally pale so it would be as unobtrusive as possible.

At the same time that grade schoolers—and subsequently high school students—were being imprinted in Indiana, kids in Cache and Rich counties in Utah were also submitting to the program, despite potential religious obstacles for the region's substantial Mormon population. In fact, Bruce McConkie, a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, declared that blood-type tattoos were exempt from the typical prohibitions on Mormons defacing their bodies, giving the program a boost among the devout. The experiment would not last much longer, though.

 

By 1955, 60,000 adults and children had gotten tattooed with their blood types in Lake County. In Milford, health officials persisted in promoting the program widely, offering the tattoos for free during routine vaccination appointments. But despite the cooperation exhibited by communities in Indiana and Utah, the programs never spread beyond their borders.

The Korean conflict had come to an end in 1953, reducing the strain put on blood supplies and along with it, the need for citizens to double as walking blood banks. More importantly, outside of the program's avid boosters, most physicians were extremely reticent to rely solely on a tattoo for blood-typing. They preferred to do their own testing to make certain a donor was a match with a patient.

There were other logistical challenges that made the program less than useful. The climate of a post-nuclear landscape meant that bodies might be charred, burning off tattoos and rendering the entire operation largely pointless. With the Soviet Union’s growing nuclear arsenal—1600 warheads were ready to take to the skies by 1960—the idea of civic defense became outmoded. Ducking and covering under desks, which might have shielded some from the immediate effects of a nuclear blast, would be meaningless in the face of such mass destruction.

Programs like tat-typing eventually fell out of favor, yet tens of thousands of adults consented to participate even after the flaws in the program were publicized, and a portion allowed their young children to be marked, too. Their motivation? According to Carol Fischler, who spoke with the podcast 99% Invisible about being tattooed as a young girl in Indiana, the paranoia over the Cold War in the 1950s drowned out any thought of the practice being outrageous or harmful. Kids wanted to do their part. Many nervously bit their lip but still lined up with the attitude that the tattoo was part of being a proud American.

Perhaps equally important, children who complained of the tattoo leaving them particularly sore received another benefit: They got the rest of the afternoon off.

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