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Track champions donning the American flag are a rare symbol of unity

It’s hard to escape our political divisions, but it can happen

Whenever I see someone wearing an American flag in public these days, my mind can’t help but go certain places. Like, this person probably would not appreciate the Killer Mike rap blasting from my ride. They probably feel some type of way about Colin Kaepernick. They could be a resident of ’Merica. Not that I necessarily have a problem with those things. But if I see you sporting the flag on your hat, your vehicle, or one of those Under Armour T-shirts, I confess to making assumptions about your views on some the most important social issues of our time.

Which is why I was glad to see so many athletes, especially Black athletes, wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes this week at the world track and field championships in Budapest, Hungary. It felt like a much-needed moment of unity and an example of what truly makes America great.

There was sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, a conservative punching bag a year ago when she missed the Olympics for smoking weed, proudly wrapping herself in the flag after a redemptive victory in the 100-meter dash. There were the four members of the mixed 400-meter relay team, caping for America after their stunning come-from-behind world record performance. I expect sprinter Noah Lyles to clutch the flag tighter than some of those Jan. 6, umm … citizens if and when he completes the 100/200 double.

Watching all the star-spangled victory laps made me wonder: Did I click the wrong link and ended up on a NASCAR race? CPAC?

Yes, I’m stereotyping. But no, I ain’t tripping. In a 2022 YouGov poll, 83% of Republicans had a “very positive” view of the American flag, compared with 49% of Democrats. Seventy percent of white Americans had that “very positive” opinion, compared with 37% of Black Americans. The flag is often a deliberate signal about which team people are playing for.

To escape this American tribal dynamic, I clicked over to where the world’s fastest, jumping-est, and throwing-est human beings are competing in a meet that few Americans care about because it’s not the Olympics. But it’s still organized on a nation-by-nation basis, and American athletes compete with “USA” across their chests. That’s the primary reason for track and field’s ritual of the flag-draped victory lap: in the most important races of their lives, athletes are representing their country, not a club or league.

From left to right: Matthew Boling, Alexis Holmes, Rosey Effiong and Justin Robinson of the USA relay team won the mixed 4×400 relay at the National Athletics Centre in Budapest, Hungary.

Arpad Kurucz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

It’s a tradition inherited from the days when track and field was supposedly an amateur sport. In much of elite American sports, especially football and baseball, a particular definition of patriotism is enforced on entire stadiums through military exhibitions and renditions of “God Bless America.” “The atmospheres of the games are no longer politically neutral but decidedly, often uncomfortably, nationalistic,” sports journalist Howard Bryant wrote in 2013. At sporting events from Little League to the MLB’s World Series, celebrating the American flag is not optional. To not display the required reverence for the flag, as Kaepernick and soccer star Megan Rapinoe know, invites the wrath of millions.

Which is why the displays on the track are so refreshing – they come from emotion, not enforcement. They are neither partisan statements nor rebukes of athletes who knelt during the national anthem to protest police violence and systemic racism. The celebrations are simply joyful and genuine. Track is so unfortunately niche that hardly anybody would complain, or even notice, if winners celebrated without that piece of fabric. The whole context of these track and field championships is an example of what America can be when freed from political constructs and one-dimensional definitions of patriotism.

Next year’s Paris Games may well be different. Olympic Games draw more attention, more money from bigger TV contracts, and more scrutiny. At the 2000 Sydney Games, the American men’s 100-meter relay team was castigated for celebrating too garishly with the flag. (One dude wore the flag like a do-rag at one point – oh, say, did that brother’s haircut get waves?) In 2021, the International Olympic Committee tried to ban kneeling, raising a fist or otherwise protesting at the Tokyo Games. (It didn’t work.) And the Olympics were the site of one of the strongest political protests in sports history, in 1968, when Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the 200-meter medal stand as the American anthem played.

So don’t mistake the American flags flying through Budapest as a sign that track and field won’t address American injustice. History shows that some of these athletes, like those in other sports, will likely critique America when the time and the platform are right. When that moment returns to the track, we might see a champion speak out while wrapped in the Stars and Stripes. And I would be glad that my assumptions about people who drape themselves in American flags were wrong.

For now, I’m appreciating how the flag-draped celebrations at the track and field championships counteract the relentless politicization of, well, everything these days. These displays signal that the promise of American ideals can’t be monopolized by one group or confined to one definition. They show that Richardson, a brash, bisexual Black woman, shares a birthright with a red-state country singer like Jason Aldean. That Black people have as much right as anyone to define patriotism. That there are all types of exceptional – and exceptionally proud – Americans.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.