When United States flag bearer Todd Lodwick rounds the track at the "Fisht" Olympic Stadium on Friday and passes the section of the stand where Russian president Vladimir Putin is situated, he will be just a few inches away from potentially breaking the law.
Because if Lodwick decides to copy many other nations and follow the typical Olympic protocol of dipping the flag to Putin, or any other watching head of state, as a sign of respect, he would be in direct conflict with a genuine but little-known U.S. federal law.
The United States Flag Code, contained in Chapter 1 of Title Four of the United States Code, forbids the Stars and Stripes to be dipped "to any person or thing" except for rare situations involving naval vessels.
While marching into a stadium and parading a flag might seem like a relatively routine task – albeit with billions of eyes watching – flag bearers actually have several things to remember as they perform the honor at an Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. Making sure the American flag is held high is considered the most important.
"That was the main thing I was told," said Cameron Myler, a luge athlete who carried the flag at Lillehammer in 1994, the third of her four Olympics. "Don't dip the flag to anyone. They said to me that U.S. protocol says that the flag must not be dipped regardless of title, even though the Royal Family of Norway was in attendance."
The Flag Code law does not carry any formal punishment as part of its provisions. Even though it is strictly speaking a federal law, it is considered more akin to a set of guidelines.
When fencer and flag bearer Mariel Zagunis was quizzed about the matter at the 2012 London Games, a U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman said it would be a matter of personal choice. Zagunis followed every American representative since 1932 and kept the flag aloft, even when she passed Queen Elizabeth II.
More than protocol, the thing Mark Grimmette remembers is the nerves. A five-time Olympic luge competitor, Grimmette carried the flag at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and recalls being advised on how, where, when and how fast to walk.
[ Related: How to watch the Winter Olympics ]
"Even now the hair on my neck stands up when I think about it," said Grimmette, now a coach in the U.S. luge program. "It was an incredible experience, but there was a lot to think about."
In Lillehammer, Myler was initially concerned that the flag might be too heavy and tire her out for her event, only to find out another Olympic secret – the flags are surprisingly lightweight.
The role also comes with some extra bonuses. Myler got to demonstrate her sport to Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, and when the Olympic team returned home and visited the White House she presented an honorary jacket to President Bill Clinton.
"It is hard to believe 20 years have gone by," said Myler, now a professor at NYU after a successful career practicing law. "But when you think back on it, it is a lot of fun. It is something you will never forget."
Lodwick will compete in the Nordic combined event for the sixth and final time and admitted the honor of leading out the team at the Opening Ceremony made him feel "like I have already won a medal."
- Sports & Recreation
- Todd Lodwick
- United States flag