Few things hold more sway in the popular mind than the triumph of an underdog. But imagine pulling off such an upset that the Olympic organizers don’t even have your national anthem available.
That’s what happened to Josy Barthel of Luxembourg when he won the men’s 1,500-meter race at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, beating Bob McMillen of the United States and Werner Lueg of Germany. Barthel wept atop the podium as the Olympic band, unequipped with the necessary sheet music, improvised his country’s anthem.
United States, 1968
Today, personal twists and flourishes on the national anthem are commonplace. But that wasn’t so in 1968, when, in Game 5 of the World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals, José Feliciano stepped onto the field in Detroit to sing the anthem in what one baseball fan indignantly described as a “jazzy, hippy manner.”
“What screwball gave permission to have the national anthem desecrated?” the fan asked after the game. “It was disgraceful, and I sincerely hope such a travesty will never be permitted again.”
“I have never heard anything so disgraceful and disrespectful,” another declared. “The only things that resembled our national anthem were the words. As a native Detroiter, I am ashamed of the persons who would let such a thing happen.”
The Tigers radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who had chosen Mr. Feliciano to sing the anthem, responded mildly, “I imagine there’s some criticism about it, but a fellow has to sing it the way he feels it.”
In the summer of 1977, in the heart of the Austrian Alps, Alan Jones of Australia won his first Formula One Grand Prix — and then proceeded to suffer through a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” by a drunk man on a trumpet instead of the Australian national anthem. The organizers, it appeared, had not learned from their Finnish counterparts’ mistake 25 years earlier.
Jones was a good sport, remarking afterward that a drunken trumpet performance of “Happy Birthday to You” was, in Austria, “not too unusual.”
What a difference a letter makes.
The Croatian national anthem includes the line “Mila kuda si planina” — roughly, “Dear, we love your mountains.” But at a qualifying match for the 2008 European Championship between Croatia and England’s soccer teams in November 2007, the British opera singer Tony Henry belted out, “Mila kura si planina”: an ungrammatical sentence, but one that basically meant, “Dear, my penis is a mountain.”
Vedran Corluka and Luka Modric of the Croatian team “were seen grinning at each other when they heard the mistake,” The Telegraph reported at the time, and Croatia went on to win, 3-2, causing England to miss Euro 2008. Players said the gaffe actually relaxed them and helped them prevail — and some fan websites suggested that Mr. Henry receive a medal and become the team’s mascot for the tournament.
No one who listened to the lyrics could mistake the fake Kazakh anthem from Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” for the real thing. Among other things, it asserts that other countries “are run by little girls” and “have inferior potassium.”
But somehow, when Maria Dmitrienko of Kazakhstan won a gold medal at the Arab Shooting Championships in Kuwait in 2012, organizers played the “Borat” version.
Ms. Dmitrienko listened, expressionless, as the song praised Kazakhstan’s prostitutes for being the “cleanest in the region — except, of course, for Turkmenistan’s.” At the end, she smiled slightly before turning and posing for the usual podium photos.
Kuwait’s embarrassment might have been eased slightly by the knowledge that a few days earlier, in Kazakhstan itself, officials at a skiing event had accidentally played Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” instead of the Kazakh anthem.
United States, 2017
Germany removed the first stanza from its national anthem after World War II because its opening lines — the infamous “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles” — had become inextricably associated with the Nazis. Today’s anthem consists solely of the third stanza of the original. But every so often, a foreigner doesn’t know.
In February, a singer hired by the United States Tennis Association sang the first verse of the anthem before a Fed Cup match between Germany’s Andrea Petkovic and the United States’ Alison Riske. The captain of the German team, Barbara Rittner, said afterward that she had been tempted to grab the microphone out of the singer’s hands.
“I have never felt so disrespected in my life,” Ms. Petkovic said after losing to Ms. Riske.
The tennis association apologized “for the performance of an outdated national anthem” and promised, “This mistake will not occur again.”
It had, however, occurred before. Back in 2008, Switzerland’s national television station, SRG, ran subtitles of the complete anthem while broadcasting a European Championship soccer game between Germany and Austria — a mistake that a company spokesman called “inexcusable.”
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