FEATURE — In St. Louis, Missouri, I sat among the nearly twenty-one thousand gymnastics fans in the partitioned half of the Dome at America’s Center, waiting. A blue-tinged light bathed the arena in anticipation and there were dances from the delicately bejeweled leotards as the athletes warmed up their routines on vault and bars.
It’s night two of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Trials. The gymnasts who will represent the United States in Tokyo will be announced at the end of the night; the men who were selected after last night’s final competition now sit on a raised platform on the floor of arena in their new USA team apparel.
Red flashes in the left corner; Simone Biles explodes off the vault in several twisting flips. Blue pops from the right; MyKayla Skinner flies off the bars with a triple dismount.
Sparkles of red and blue keep popping, twisting and flying around the arena.
There is an animated former Olympic athlete – from Canada – pacing the gymnastics floor at the center of it all charged with hyping up the crowd. Her exhortations to do the Dougie and the Whip and Nae Nae ripple the stadium seating with wild movement.
Then, everything stops. The music quiets. The arena goes dark.
The lights directly over the deserted floor apparatus flash on and shine alone, the now warm-up clad athletes hovering just outside their reach. Name by name, they are called out to get their due. Leanne Wong. Jade Carey. Jordan Chiles. Grace McCallum. Sunisa Lee. MyKayla Skinner.
Each steps into the light and waves.
The noise is almost deafening. And then they announce Simone. The record-breaking crowd is on its feet.
After a smile and a wave, Simone steps into one of the two columns of athletes flanking opposite sides of the floor.
Once they are all accounted for – Simone, Leanne, Jade, Jordan, Sunisa and the rest –they turn to face the full-bleed image of the American flag now set on the jumbotron, hands on their hearts. A plain-clothed, military veteran steps to a mic at a platform to their right. The crowd hushes. The Star-Spangled banner fills the Dome.
Things went a little differently across the country a day earlier at the U.S. Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon. During the medal ceremony there for the women’s hammer throw, bronze-medalist Gwen Berry turned away from the flag and anthem.
This isn’t the first time Berry has protested the national anthem. She did it in 2019 at the Pan-American games as well. It cost her sponsorships and resulted in a twelve-month suspension from the sport.
This year, while she won’t be suspended from competition because the trials allow for respectful demonstrations on issues of racial justice, there are people who still aren’t very happy about her choice to turn away.
Twitter and media comment sections are full of people who are questioning whether Ms. Berry should represent the U.S. at the Olympics if she does not – or cannot – stand for the national anthem like others – like the Olympic gymnasts I witnessed in St. Louis.
But to answer that question, perhaps we need to first ask a different one: what does the Star-Spangled Banner really represent anyway?
According to a 2014 article in the New York Times titled “How the National Anthem Has Unfurled,” that’s not as easy to answer as you might think. Our nation’s anthem has represented different things at different times. And has been different things to different people.
Take for instance, the melody of the song. The so-called Anacreontic Song, which is the tune Francis Scott Key set his poem to, was already well-known at the time. French Revolutionists, abolitionist, and women’s rights activists had all used it in support of their causes before it was ever ours.
Not only did the melody originally sing of other things besides America’s freedom, throughout the 19th century the lyrics were regularly changed to support other social causes, like abolishing slavery and temperance of alcohol.
“It’s really sort of an amazing story of how the song has grown up alongside the country: You can really trace the history of the United States in the echoes of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” Dr. Mark Clague, a musicology professor at the University of Michigan said.
Ultimately to Dr. Clague, the song is a verb, not a noun. “When you see the song as something that’s in the process of always becoming,” he said, “you realize that it is our country — made audible.”
And if it’s a verb – and I hope it is – maybe there is still room for the Star-Spangled Banner to mean different things to different people. To take up different social causes at different times. And for a dome full of reverenced gymnasts and spectators to be hushed – and also for Ms. Berry to turn away.
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