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.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

Submarine Expedition Reveals Parts of the Titanic Have Fully Decayed

NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island
NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island

In 1985, oceanographers Robert Ballard, Jean-Louis Michel, and their crew located the wreck of the RMS Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Images of the shipwreck have since become as iconic as photographs of the ocean liner taken before the 1912 tragedy. But the ruin's time in the ocean is limited. As part of an upcoming documentary, a crew of scientists carried out the first manned expedition to the wreck in 14 years and discovered the Titanic is rapidly decaying, BBC reports.

After it sank, the Titanic settled in two parts on the seafloor about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Most of the wreck is still intact, but a lot has changed since 2005, when it was last visited by a human-occupied submersible.

While working on a film for Atlantic Productions London, an exploration team from Triton Submarines visited the wreck five times over eight days and discovered that entire sections of the ship have disappeared. The starboard side of the officer's quarters has deteriorated, and the captain's bathtub is totally gone. The deck house on the same side and the sloping lounge roof of the bow are also on the brink of collapse, according to the crew.

Unlike other artifacts and historic sites, there's no way to preserve the wreckage of the Titanic for future generations. Churning ocean currents, corrosive salt, and metal-eating bacteria will continue to break down the steel behemoth until it becomes part of the sea. Some experts estimate that by 2030, it's likely that no part of the wreck will remain.

Whether that projection is off by years or decades, these findings suggest that every new team that visits the Titanic may find something different than the team before them. On this most recent expedition, the Triton Submarines exploration team was able to film the wreck in 4K for the first time. That footage may end up being some of the last ever captured of many elements of the ship.

[h/t BBC]

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