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The Fraught Politics Of Olympic Flag Design

South and North Korea’s unification flag means something different to everyone: peace, protest, or even political dispute.

The Fraught Politics Of Olympic Flag Design
[Photo: Kim Doo-Ho/AFP/Getty Images]

The Opening Ceremony is a crowd favorite, thanks to the overwrought national showmanship (and the inevitable memes it tends to spawn). Since the very beginning, countries have been symbolically needling each other during the pseudo-political theater of the ceremony, and it usually involves the most obvious visual symbol they have: their flags. 2018 will be no different.

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Take this well-worn anecdote from 1908, when host country England neglected to display the American flag among all the other competing countries at the Opening Ceremony in London. Legend has it that as every delegation marched past the box of King Edward and dipped their flags in a customary show of respect, the insulted Americans had other ideas. “Dip that banner and you’re in [the] hospital tonight,” an American athlete supposedly told the American flag-bearer. So he didn’t, and the U.S. has made it a tradition. (Exactly what truly happened, and whether the bearer truly refused to dip the flag, remains somewhat murky, and the details of this “folk tale” are disputed by historians.)

This year’s ceremony is shaping up to be nearly as dramatic. In January, North Korea and South Korea announced they would march together at the Games under a single design: The so-called “unification flag.”

The unification flag. [Image: Wiki Commons]
The graphic, showing the Korean peninsula in light blue on a white background, has flown in the Olympics before, in 2000, and was created in 1990 for use in the Asian Games, the international competition that happens every four years in the region. It’s made a handful of appearances since then.

The flag has acted as a magnet for controversy this week; conservative protesters in Seoul burned and tore up the flag in a demonstration against North Korean participation while others waved it happily in a show of support for the visiting North Korean athletes. According to the New York Times, South Koreans are fairly divided over the issue, and increasingly, young people don’t see unification as an important goal. To some, the flag seems like a symbol of misguided priorities.

Meanwhile, Japan protested a detail of the flag’s design, which one official called “extremely regrettable.” The problem? A light-blue speck on the eastern side of the landmass.

The dot–which is so small, it’s not really visible in the above image–represents an uninhabited landmass known as the Liancourt Rocks (aka Dokdo in Korean, or Takeshima in Japanese). The islands have been in dispute between South Korea and Japan for decades, and when the unified Korean hockey team flew the unification flag during a practice match this week, Japan reportedly lodged a formal complaint with the International Olympic Committee. The IOC, as the de facto arbiter here, recommended that the flag be changed if it flies during the Opening Ceremony on Friday–to which the delegation reportedly agreed.

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On Friday, keep your eyes peeled for the flag–which is “the only thing that makes both feel comfortable,” according to one minister quoted by the Korea Herald. It’s not the first unofficial flag flown at the games as a form of political protest, though. In 1906, at the games in Athens, an Irish medalist who had to compete for England protested by reportedly shimmying up the flagpole at the ceremony and replacing the Union Jack with “a green flag blazoned with a gold harp and the words ‘Érin go Bragh,'” or Ireland Forever. Ten years later, Ireland would declare independence (and incite a war). The future of a unified Korea seems less certain.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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