Like so many Americans, I watched my share of the Olympics on TV, even though I don’t much like snow, and winter sports don’t interest me. (Except for women’s figure skating — which, as a spectator “sport,” is a lot like watching the Rockettes. May the best legs and most spangly outfits win!)
But I’m not really here to talk about the Vancouver games, now rapidly becoming stale news. Rather, today’s subject is flags. Which countries have the nicest flags? Which countries ought to send their flags back to the drawing board? I’ve got some opinions on the matter, and a lot of folks won’t like them.
First, a wonderful things about the Vancouver Olympics was the glorious (yet tastefully understated) display of Canadian pride. And Canadians have reason to be proud: Canada has the most beautiful flag in the entire world! Few other countries even come close. And it has been that way since they adopted their modern flag 45 years ago, despite a United Nations membership that has doubled since then.
Now I LOVE my own country, the United States of America, as much as anyone. We have much to be proud of with all that tonnage of Olympic medals hauled home from Vancouver. But, at the risk of being accused of committing treason, I posit that our own flag, Old Glory, while compelling in symbolic ways, doesn’t deserve any gold medals for design.
Our flag’s symbolism, of course, is VERY important. The fifty stars, highlighting each one of our states, gives them all equal weight. It’s a big reason people around the world have heard of Rhode Island or Wyoming, as well as California and Texas. We revel in our federal system of government, and want the world to know it!
But when it comes to design, I see the U.S. flag as resembling a…gaudy bed sheet, looking most approporiate hung out the window of a college frat house. But the Canadian flag, with its big maple leaf in Royal Mounty red, broadcasts the whole idea of Canada in the most upbeat and appealing way. The simplicity of its design is a stroke of genius. OH, CANADA, indeed!
There are some runners-up in this competition — though distant, in my opinion. First among them would be Greece, which needs all the favorable p.r. it can get right now. The alternating blue and white stripes, along with the white cross, is both elegant and evocative — reminding people everywhere of Greece’s sun-bleached buildings silhouetted by azure, Aegean waters.
Third place belongs to Kenya. The shield and spears are perfectly set off against the black, red and green stripes representing African nationalism. First unfurled in 1963, it is a mastery of design on a continent where so many other flags are dismal and quite a few have been redesigned over the years. For all those “birthers” in the U.S. who believe that Barack Obama is really a citizen of Kenya — well, that country sure has a handsome flag!
Next up is Barbados, though I don’t believe they fielded a bobsled team in Vancouver. It’s a jolly combination of blue and gold, featuring Neptune’s trident as its national symbol. Next to a bottle of rum or the face of R & B siren, Rihanna, I can’t think of a more fitting symbol for a Caribbean nation.
Rounding out the top 5 is Croatia, clearly the best new European flag to emerge after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire. Croatia’s national checkerboard crest topped by a crown is perfectly framed by the flag’s red, white and blue stripes.
Of course, it’s hard to limit the world’s best flags to a mere five. Among the honorable mentions would have to be Lebanon, Israel, Panama, Malawi (look it up!), and the Canadian provincial flag (and would-be nation) of Quebec. (Canada’s other provincial flags range from boring to bizarre).
As for the USA, I’d rate it somewhere in the top-third of the world national banners. But, hey, it’s OUR flag and we love it! And more than a few have died for the values it represents. But I’m not talking about genuine patriotism — I’m talking about flags as art, and only that. Fortunately, several of our state flags are superbly designed, starting with Alaska. It features the Big Dipper and Polaris set against a navy field. As flags go, it’s instantly memorable, evocative and definitely cool! For Alaskans who dream of independent nationhood, they’ve already got a flag worthy of greatness to fly at the U.N. (I’m talkin’ to you, Todd Palin). Other fine state flags include New Mexico, South Carolina and Texas.
But what about the flags that aren’t so lovely — that are poorly conceived, clearly designed by committee, and sometimes just a mess?
Let’s start with the Republic of Korea. We saw a lot of the South Korean flag at the Vancouver Olympics, especially at the speed skating track. And, of course, hanging above the dais as the exquisite Kim Yu-na was awarded the gold medal in women’s figure skating. While far from the worst flag out there, Korea’s national emblem looks better stitched on the back of a Tae Kwan Do robe than fluttering above an embassy.
Another flag that come up short is Brazil. Yes, the green field represents the vast Amazon. That’s obvious. But what about the yellow diamond containing a blue ball, with a smattering of stars signifying Brazil’s state capitals? It’s an odd and soul-less design, from the most soulful nation on Earth. And what of the slender ribbon across the blue ball, tracing the equator and inscribed, “Ordem e Progresso?” To me, it suggests that the Brazilians ignored Design Rule #1: “If you can’t read the ad from five feet away, it’s NOT working for you!”
Actually, there are so many poorly designed flags that it’s hard to narrow the list to a “bottom 5.” So I’ve arbitrarily selected an additional three that represent what’s wrong with so many of our world’s flags:
CYPRUS. As with the Republic of Korea, it’s always risky to hoist a flag that is mostly white. But Cyprus has made a bad situation worse by picturing their island nation as a shape, in golden yellow, in the center. Unless you know your Mediterranean geography, you won’t know what that “yellow thing” is. Is it a kind of fish?
BOSNIA and HERZEGOVINA. Though bordered by Croatia on three sides, they clearly were consulting a different and confused design team when conjuring up images to represent their nation. It’s a weird mix of diagonal planes and stars — a design scheme roughly duplicated by a number of Pacific island nations and former Russian republics. And what’s with the stars cut off at the top and bottom of the flag? Did they run out of cloth?
Last but not least, the state flag of HAWAII. Here, though, it’s not the design that bothers me. In fact, the flag is quite pretty. But with all the uproar generated by the Confederate battle flag (in part because the stars-and-bars are such a potent symbol of rebellion), you’d think our Constitution would have outlawed inclusion of the UNION JACK in any of our fifty state flags! Tear that part out, I say, and either replace it with a pineapple or a surfboard. Or even SpongeBob!
Well, thanks for stopping by, and my apologies for offending so many of you. Still, if you’d like to see additional samples of my work, please click here.
Oh — by the way, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper DOES resemble Bill Clinton. They could have been separated at birth!