The tradition of the Olympic flag handover ceremony

The Olympic flag handover has become a fabled part of the Olympic Games closing ceremony.

By Will Imbo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

On 8 August, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games officially came to an end with the extinguishing of the Olympic flame at the closing ceremony, which featured a number of iconic elements — including the handover of the Olympic flag to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

But what is the significance of the handover? When did it begin, and what are the steps that must be followed?

Here’s everything you need to know about the Olympic flag handover ceremony.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

What is the Olympic flag handover ceremony?

The handover of the Olympic flag is a symbolic moment during the closing ceremony when a city — most recently Paris — officially becomes the next host city of the Olympic Games.

The handover segment of the closing ceremony takes place after the Greek flag is raised to the left of the Olympic flag, and the Greek national anthem is played to signify the link between the Games of Antiquity that were staged in Olympia, Greece, and those of the modern era.

At this point, the Olympic flag is lowered and carried from the stadium as the Olympic anthem is played, and the mayors of the current host city and next host city join International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach on stage (as we saw at the Tokyo 2020 Closing Ceremony, Governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo joined President Bach).

The mayor of the host city then hands a special Olympic flag to the IOC president, who then passes it on to the mayor of the city hosting the next Olympic games; the receiving mayor then waves the flag eight times. This unique flag — which differs from the one that flies during the Games themselves — is typically displayed in the city hall of the host city over the next four years in the buildup to the next Olympic Games.

The flag of the next host country is then raised to the right of the flag of the current host country as its anthem is played.

History of the Olympic flag handover

The flag handover ceremony is sometimes referred to as the Antwerp Ceremony, as the tradition began at the 1920 Olympic Games when the first-ever Olympic flag was presented to the IOC by the city of Antwerp, Belgium. At the end of the Games, a new flag was made for the Paris 1924 Olympics, but the flag was still referred to as the “Antwerp flag”.

The Antwerp flag was used during the handover ceremony through to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; a new flag was presented to the IOC at the 1988 Summer Olympics by the city of Seoul, South Korea, which subsequently became known as the “Seoul flag” and was used through to the end of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

At the conclusion of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, a new flag was presented to the IOC as a replacement for the Seoul flag; this is the latest version of the Olympic flag that is currently used during the handover ceremony.

The first Winter Olympic flag handover took place at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway. The “Oslo flag”, as it came to be known, was last used at the closing ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. The city of PyeongChang presented a replacement for the Oslo flag — the current flag in use today —  at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics.