National anthems at the Olympics… in numbers!

  • 54: anthems played at the Games, one more than at Beijing
  • 46: number of times The Star-Spangled Banner was played, eight more than any other
  • 4: number of times it was played for Michael Phelps
  • 13: anthems played that weren’t at Beijing, including Algeria’s slightly unusual effort
  • 13: anthems lost since Beijing, including, sadly, Mongolia’s
  • 8/1: odds you could get on the wrong anthem being played at a medal ceremony
  • £0: money you’d have won on that bet
  • 1: anthem complaint
  • 210: seconds that the London Philharmonic Orchestra cut out of the world’s best anthem, Uruguay’s, to make sure it met Olympic rules on length
  • 210,000: number of newspaper articles published pointing out that Uruguay’s anthem had been cut
  • 0: number of times Uruguay’s anthem was actually played
  • 1: number of times IOC president Jacques Rogge shoehorned a reference to God Save the Queen into his closing speech (“These were happy and glorious games”)
  • 80,000: number of people in the Olympic stadium who didn’t get the reference
  • 1: Li-Cheng Tseng (pictured above), a Taiwanese Taekwondoist, who provided easily my favourite anthem moment of the Games.
    She was favourite to win her class, and ended up third behind Britain’s Jade Jones, but I’ve never seen someone so happy to be standing on a podium collecting a bronze. She stood and listened to God Save the Queen like it was her own. And she’s still smiling now!

If you can think of any others please let me know

Hungary for a new anthem

An anthems controversy at the Olympics seems to have slipped below the radar.

Last week, Hungary’s gold-winning fencer, Aron Szilagyi, complained after having to listen to a ‘weird’ version of his national anthem, Himnusz, while standing on the podium.

The tune, recorded by the London Philharmonic, was higher-pitched than normal, quicker too. It was also missing the drum rolls that give the anthem a kick at the end.

Hear the difference for yourself. Here’s the Philharmonic’s recording:

And here’s how the anthem normally sounds:

The incident probably didn’t make headlines outside Hungary because most people didn’t expect the country to win any more golds (and most people were actually watching the sport). But yesterday, gymnast Krisztian Berki won the men’s pommel. Fortunately, he did get to listen to a normal version (that’s him doing so at the top of the post).

A complaint had been coming. The London Philharmonic and composer Philip Sheppard were asked to give all the anthems a ‘fresh twist’ for the Games, partly to avoid paying royalties. That meant quickening some, slowing others, changing the instruments used and adding entirely new motifs. Even God Save the Queen was toyed with:

It always seemed a bit odd to do this for the Olympics. Surely the last thing an athlete should be thinking when they’ve won gold is, “What the hell have you done to my anthem?”

Still, some do sound a lot better for the treatment. I particularly recommend looking out for The Star-Spangled Banner (which Soundcloud won’t let me upload for copyright reasons!). Less bombastic than normal, and all the better for it.

(On a related note, the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper was forced to withdraw an article on the ‘world’s worst anthems’ after offending the people of Uruguay, Algeria, North Korea and several other countries. I’m now feeling rather pleased I decided not to pitch that article to anyone)

The secrets behind national anthems in 1,000 words…

…and a poor joke about Coldplay.

A piece I’ve done for the BBC went online today (above’s a picture of it on the front page).

I’ve somehow crammed 18 countries into it. Although apologies to anyone from Oman or Zimbabwe, who I seem to insult!

If you know of any secrets it doesn’t mention, please let me know.

How to write a national anthem

National anthems and Olympic glory go hand in hand, but what’s it like to write one? This piece of mine published in The Independent (a UK newspaper) will hopefully tell you.

It features the stories of a calypso singer, a chemical engineer, and one of the world’s leading anaesthesiologists, who just happen to have written the anthems of Barbados, St Kitts & Nevis and Nigeria.

For some reason, they all now live in the US so it should even be of interest to the Americans among you!

Unfortunately, none of those countries have yet to win gold, so I’ve had to use a picture of happy Chinese weightlifter Li Xueying to illustrate this post.

Hope everyone’s enjoying the Games. London feels pretty special right now.

Bosnia’s athletes take four national anthems to the Olympics

The Bosnian war, between the country’s Muslim, Croat and Serb populations, ended in 1995. That’s 17 years ago.

If you’ve ever visited the country, you’ll know just how much most people there want to forget that past and move on. Meet anyone under 30 and chances are all they’ll tell you about is their hope Bosnia can become a proud, united nation again.

Unfortunately, the country’s parliament has just shown its utter disdain for those hopes. It has rejected proposed lyrics for the country’s national anthem.

Bosnia has actually had an anthem since 1999: Dušan Šestić’s slow and nostalgic Intermecco.

And in 2009, a committee did choose words for it, again written by Šestić.

Those words are the most innocuous you could ever come across in an anthem. They start with the line, “You’re the light of the soul, eternal fire’s flame,” and finish with, “We go into the future together.”

They don’t mention Serbs, Croats or Muslims. They don’t mention any town or city. They don’t mention any historical events, any past heroes. And they definitely don’t mention the war.

But after three years of debate, and apparently spending €50,000 on the process, Bosnia’s politicians have decided they simply can’t stomach them.

A new committee will be set up shortly, they say, and that will somehow find the right lyrics.

The absurdity of the situation is shown in this quote from Slavko Jovicic, a Bosnian Serb politician and one of the people on the original anthem committee:

The truth is we could never find words that would suit everyone. If we sung about the grass, and how green it is, the Serbs would immediately object because green is a Muslim colour

What does this mean for any Bosnian athlete at the Olympics who miraculously happens to win gold? Well, they’ll just have to do what every other Bosnian does and make up their own words to the anthem.

If they’re a Bosnia Muslim, that means they’ll sing the country’s old anthem Jedna si Jedina over the top. If they’re a Bosnian Serb, they’ll sing Serbia’s, and if they’re a Bosnian Croat, they’ll sing Croatia’s.

Yes, it will sound like a mess, it will sound like they’re literally singing one song to the tune of another, but what else can they do?

Bosnia has four national anthems, and it’s unlikely to ever change until its politicians stop living in the past.

There is money in national anthems after all!

If you’re one of the few hundred people who’s written a national anthem, chances are you won’t have been paid.

I’ve got an article on the BBC’s website soon that lays out the payment figures quite starkly.

But it turns out there is money to be made in anthems after all, at least if you’re an airline. The photo at the top of this post is of a British Airways ad that’s suddenly appeared all over London to tie-in with the Olympics.

It’s nice to see them calling on people to sing anthems at the Games, although slightly odd that they seem to think they’re still played on bugles. I’m pretty sure no one’s played a bugle since 1821.

This is the first time I’ve seen ‘anthems’ being used in an advert that wasn’t for military recruitment in a dictatorship, so if you come across anything similar, please let me know.